The invisible hand is not the free market

Many people say that the housing bubble was caused by a failure of the invisible hand.

When I encounter such folks, I like to make sure they understand what the invisible hand is.  Many believe invisible hand is synonymous with free market.

It’s not.

The invisible hand is how a free market produces socially desirable outcomes.  It is not the free market itself.

So, what is the invisible hand?

It’s the incentives we face when we make the trade-off decisions that we encounter each day and how we respond to those incentives.

Some of the trade-off decisions might be: Do I go to work?  Do I buy a cup of coffee?  Do I refinance my house?  We face many invisible incentives around each of these decisions.  How much work do I have?  How much vacation have I banked?  What am I going to do with my time off?  Is the coffee good? Is it far out of my way?  Will there be a long line? Is the new mortgage rate worth the closing costs?

Others face trade-off decisions too.  Investors hire business managers to generate good returns on their investments.  Business managers, to stay employed, have to decide how to grow sales.  Do we try a new product or open locations in new markets?

The incentives that help guide our decisions is the invisible hand.  It’s invisible because we can’t physically see incentives, but they’re there.

Adam Smith claimed that the incentives in the invisible hand tended to produce socially desirable outcomes in a free market with little government regulation because in a free market we choose when and how to interact with each other.

That choice to interact or not is the key to producing socially desirable outcomes.

Consider the cup of coffee that you bought this morning.  Did you force the coffee shop to sell it to you? No. Did the coffee shop force you to buy it? No.

You and the coffee shop owner both chose to trade because you both felt like you came out ahead by doing so.  You valued the cup of coffee more than the $2 it cost you.  The coffee shop owner valued the $2 more than the cup of coffee he sold you.

That’s called a voluntary, mutually beneficial trade.  Value was created on both sides of the transaction — for you and the coffee shop owner (though most people forget about the value created for the customer, they only see the ‘profit’ for the coffee shop owner).

Smith’s famous quote illustrates the value creation engine of the invisible hand incentives nicely:

It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.

We choose to interact with the butcher for the very reason he chooses to interact with us:  self interest.  We both benefit from the interaction, otherwise we would pass it up.

When things don’t appear to produce a desirable outcome, we are quick to blame the invisible hand.  We say it failed.

But, we shouldn’t rush to judgement.  What really happened is that the incentives changed somehow so some people traded even when they did not benefit from doing so.

We should look to identify where this occurred, because that will tell us what went wrong.

Alan Greenspan, for one, told Congress that he overestimated the self-regulation of the free market.  (That self-regulation being that two parties of a transaction prudently seek to come out ahead.)

He was specifically referring to trades where investors bought mortgage-backed securities from banks.  Investors bought these for what would turn out to be much more than they were truly worth.  In fact, these investors had an insatiable appetite for mortgage-backed securities.  So much so, that banks created as much as possible by lending to just about anyone no matter their credit history and ability to pay.

But, Alan Greenspan was wrong.

He didn’t understand why investors bought this stuff.  He thought they were incorrectly overvaluing mortgage-backed securities based solely on the expected payback.  If that’s all investors were buying, Greenspan would have been right.

I doubt any of these investors would have lent money directly to many of the folks who they lent money to through the mortgage-backed securities.

So why did they did they lend money to them through the mortgage-backed securities?

Because politicians in government changed the incentives by signing up taxpayers as unwilling, and unknowing, co-signers.  The taxpayers are the folks that traded in this house of cards when it did not benefit them from doing so. 

As Russ Roberts points out in his 2010 white paper, Gambling With Other People’s Money, mortgage-backed security investors weren’t only lending to folks unlikely to repay.  They were lending to these folks with U.S. taxpayers as co-signers.

Think of it this way, a friend with a bad credit history asks you for a loan.  The payment your friend would need to repay the loan would be more than half of his income.  Do you lend him the money?

Judging the transaction solely on its merits — that is, your chances of receiving the loan  back — you’re not likely to lend him the money.

But, what if your friend’s rich Uncle Sam co-signs the loan?  If your friend stops paying, Uncle Sam will pay what’s owed.  Will you make this loan now?

More likely.  But now, you’re not judging the loan purely on the merits of your friend.  You are factoring in the value of the co-signer.  Having the co-signer changed the incentives for you.

Russ Roberts makes a good case in his paper that’s exactly what investors in mortgage-backed securities did — and they turned out to be right.  And, this is the piece of the incentive structure of subprime mortgage-backed securities that Alan Greenspan missed.

Critics of this argument say that there was no explicit guarantee from U.S. taxpayers.  Roberts argues that the pattern had been established with previous government bailouts.  And, I’d argue that politicians from both sides of the aisle were in such a fervor to “expand the dream of home ownership” that they had been sending strong signals that they wouldn’t let these investors go under (though I think they hoped it wouldn’t come to this).

So, it wasn’t the invisible hand of the free market that failed.  What caused the failure was the introduction into the incentive structure a forced trade with U.S. taxpayers in co-signing the loans of people who would not have been able to get a loan 20 years ago.

Now, I do think there were other factors that contributed.  There was an overconfidence in the ability of statistical models to somehow group bad credit risks in a way that lowered risk.  There was also the fever of rising housing prices, which caused more people to want to buy homes just to be able to sell them a few months or a year later at a higher price.

But, even these things really had the implicit guarantee of the U.S. taxpayer underlying them.  Without this guarantee, the demand for housing would not have increased as rapidly, driving up prices.  Without this guarantee, we may have been more skeptical of those sophisticated risk models.

As Roberts has stated, “Capitalism is a profit and loss system.  Profit encourages risk-taking and losses encourages prudence.”  Having the U.S. taxpayer as co-signer reduced the chance of loss and reduced prudence in just about every decision in the chain.

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4 thoughts on “The invisible hand is not the free market

  1. Seth:

    Most excellent post.

    The following book is difficult to find, however if you come upon it do read it [its only 34 pages long yet extremely insightful]: The Invisible Hand in Economics and Politics, Milton Friedman, Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 1981. It is out of print/publication and only available in a few university/research facilities.

  2. Thanks Aaron and W.E. Thanks for the reading recommendation W.E.. That looks interesting. I like books that are less than 100 pages.

  3. Pingback: Random Thoughts by Thomas Sowell and Seth | Our Dinner Table

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