Socially Useless? The Crucial Contribution of Finance to Economic Life


Markets and Morality

A system of private banks ensures stability without a central bank


IEA Brexit Unit responds to the Whitehall Economic Impact Analysis

Politicians should stop jumping on the anti-finance bandwagon

  • Animosity towards the business of finance is ancient and persistent. Because finance creates intangible value, its contribution to society is still invisible to many observers – including former regulator Lord Turner, who described large swathes of the sector as ‘socially useless’.

  • Such claims are unfounded and dangerous. Not only that, but the oftproposed remedy – increased statutory regulation – may heighten rather than mitigate the exposure of taxpayers and households to recessions and speculative bubbles.

  • Financial firms serve many useful functions which individuals and households could scarcely undertake on their own. These functions include maturity transformation, matching lenders and borrowers at low cost, facilitating the transfer of risk and consumption across time and between people, monitoring, and diversification of investments.

  • The best analogy for the financial sector is probably supermarkets. It would be possible to prepare dinner by visiting a chicken farmer to buy a chicken, a market gardener to buy a cabbage, and so on. But such a process would be very time-consuming and involve high opportunity costs. Banks reduce the transaction costs of financial activity, enabling people to spend their time more productively.

  • Gross value added (GVA) by the UK financial sector amounted to £124 billion in 2016. Of this, 50 per cent is exported. Contrary to the claims of critics, the sales and trading activity which is alleged to be self-serving accounts at most for 10 to 13 per cent of financial services business in Britain.

  • It is often argued that private-sector finance is short-term oriented. Whilst there is some evidence that shareholders may be heavily discounting distant profits, the reasons for this could be policy uncertainty and not irrationality as is commonly suggested. Moreover, the valuations of tech firms – whose positive cash flows lie far in the future – and low yields on corporate bonds suggest that investors are patient by historical standards.

  • Much financial regulation is based on the notion that, in a free market, providers ‘dupe’ consumers. But regulatory intervention is often grossly miscalculated. The Financial Conduct Authority’s recent interest cap on payday loans shrank the market by between three and five times more than the regulator expected. Markets are not perfect, but regulation is often a very poor substitute.

  • The much-cited literature linking financial growth and adverse economic outcomes is simply too crude to warrant drawing clear policy conclusions. Studies linking financialisation with inequality are similarly ambiguous: the top ten countries for their share of finance in GDP are a mixture of high-, medium- and low-inequality countries.

  • Complex financial instruments and speculation, both unpopular in the wake of the 2008 crash, are not harmful on their own. In fact they help to transfer risks to those who can best bear it, whilst giving greater income certainty to vulnerable people. Until and unless the value of finance is properly understood, public policy will fail to harness its benefits and may well endanger public welfare.

This paper was covered in City AM

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Philip Booth is Senior Academic Fellow at the Institute of Economic Affairs. He is also Director of the Vinson Centre and Professor of Economics at the University of Buckingham and Professor of Finance, Public Policy and Ethics at St. Mary’s University, Twickenham. He also holds the position of (interim) Director of Catholic Mission at St. Mary’s having previously been Director of Research and Public Engagement and Dean of the Faculty of Education, Humanities and Social Sciences. From 2002-2016, Philip was Academic and Research Director (previously, Editorial and Programme Director) at the IEA. From 2002-2015 he was Professor of Insurance and Risk Management at Cass Business School. He is a Senior Research Fellow in the Centre for Federal Studies at the University of Kent and Adjunct Professor in the School of Law, University of Notre Dame, Australia. Previously, Philip Booth worked for the Bank of England as an adviser on financial stability issues and he was also Associate Dean of Cass Business School and held various other academic positions at City University. He has written widely, including a number of books, on investment, finance, social insurance and pensions as well as on the relationship between Catholic social teaching and economics. He is Deputy Editor of Economic Affairs. Philip is a Fellow of the Royal Statistical Society, a Fellow of the Institute of Actuaries and an honorary member of the Society of Actuaries of Poland. He has previously worked in the investment department of Axa Equity and Law and was been involved in a number of projects to help develop actuarial professions and actuarial, finance and investment professional teaching programmes in Central and Eastern Europe. Philip has a BA in Economics from the University of Durham and a PhD from City University.

Policy Analyst at the Cato Institute's Center for Monetary and Financial Alternatives

Diego was educated at McGill University and Keble College, Oxford, from which he holds degrees in economics and finance. His policy interests are mainly in consumer finance and banking, capital markets regulation, and multi-sided markets. However, he has written on a range of economic issues including the taxation of capital income, the regulation of online platforms and the reform of electricity markets after Brexit. Diego’s articles have featured in UK and foreign outlets such as Newsweek, City AM, CapX and L’Opinion. He is also a frequent speaker on broadcast media and at public events, as well as a lecturer at the University of Buckingham.