Tuesday, 21 July 2009

The modifier on innovation

There has been a fair amount of discussion recently about financial innovation. Willem Buiter has suggested that new financial products should have a licensing regime akin to drugs, and Felix Salmon has written provocatively on the link (or lack thereof) betweeen innovation and economic growth. This should be read in the context of David Warsh's work on Knowledge and the Wealth of Nations, a work that this post from Science Blogs reminded me of.

So, what do we know? First that certain infrastructures help innovations generate wealth. The ability to profit from a good idea helps, as does the ability to finance development. Hence patents and joint stock companies. Education is necessary, and law which gives certainty of ownership is also helpful.

Next, we know that most innovation does not produce growth. A lot of it isn't harmful, but there are many, many dead ends. Markets are sometimes (but not always) good at sorting out which ideas are useful.

Now to specifically financial innovation. The point of financial innovation is to produce products which meet specific needs better (more cheaply, more accurately), and thus often to lower the cost of finance. Some innovations have worked out: a good example would be the convertible bond, which allows companies to monetise the volatility in their stock price. Others have been more or less useless but benign. Credit spread options are a good example here: in the early days of credit derivatives, these were a competitor with CDS as standard credit risk transfer products. CDS turned out to work rather better, and so credit spread options faded into illiquidity without doing anyone any harm.

Are there genuinely harmful wholesale financial products? I am still not sure that there are. I certainly can't think of one*. If firms are required to keep enough capital against the risk of a product; to value it properly; and to document it carefully, then why should trading be constrained? Isn't product licensing just a route to a less efficient economy?

*Tradable emissions permits come pretty close though.

Update. There is a nice rebuttal of the `innovation causes crises' meme from the Economics of Contempt here.

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