On Financial Intermediation

I appreciate Steve Randy Waldman, who writes the excellent blog Interfluidity.  Even before I started blogging, while I was at RealMoney, we interacted over CPDOs, along with Alea, and several others that were onto the scam.  That was a fun time, because aside from the Canadian rating agency Dominion, there was no one else questioning the idiocy of the AAA ratings aside from a few bloggers — we are the conscience of Wall Street, but that doesn’t mean that we get any pay as a result.  We write these things as a public service.

Recently, he wrote two  articles on financial intermediation.  Now I’d like to try my own thoughts on the topic.

Financial intermediation has two purposes: transactions and safety.  People want to buy and sell, but don’t want to have a currency where its value shifts radically day-to-day, which would complicate their decisions considerably.  They want a stable unit of account, and don’t want the possibility that they lose a lot of money as a result.  (Yes, during conditions of hyperinflation that boundary disappears, but that’s because they are already losing value already each day from holding the formerly “safe” transactional asset.  They get more careless on the intermediary, because of the risks of holding the safe asset.)

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The second goal is safety/preservation/growth of purchasing power.  Can I park money or a short to long amount of time and be assured that when the term is up, I will:

  • Receive receive back as much or more in purchasing power terms.
  • Reduce my risks or the risks of those I care for from death and other calamities.

Financial intermediation leaves money on the table.  It does not seek the best investment outcome, but takes a lesser return, so that goals can be achieved with greater certainty.

Now, that provides an advantage to the financial intermediaries.  It means that they get cheap funding under most conditions.  Now, can they invest it over the likely lifetime of the funding and not lose money?  That’s a lot of what solvency regulation is about in banks and insurers.   Because financial promises made can’t be easily analyzed for quality by those that offer money, there are two responses by the government:

  • Capital rules (which vary by liability and investments)
  • Insurance, so that users don’t have to worry about loss.

And, for what it is worth, 12 years ago I played a large role in setting the rules for Maryland life insurers in place, both writing the law, and explaining to the legislators how it protected the public interest.  (Hey! Passed unanimously on the first try, and with the d-word! (Derivatives)  My bill allowed risk mitigation but not risk taking with derivatives.)  The then-governor dressed like a mafia don at the bill signing, for what it is worth… My boss and I and our external and internal legal counsels spent a lot of time on this, but I was the prime mover on getting it done.

As an aside, sitting around in hearings in Annapolis, not knowing when your bill will come up is a chore.  If you know me well, you know I brought work to do, and if that wore out, good books to read.  I was never sitting there with nothing, bored. In the process I learned that Johns Hopkins owns Maryland, but declines from making that public, except when they care.  When they spoke up, the legislature rolls over and asks for a scratch on the tummy. Arf!

Sorry, got lost in reminiscing.  Can I say that it was weird?  (I will leave out my dealings with the Department of Insurance, which were surreal.)  I’m not political for the most part, but in the end, the Maryland life insurance investment code is one of the best of the 50 states.  Kind of sad that we don’t have more life insurers here.

The last three paragraphs were quite a detour.  Let me take a different tack.  Yes, intermediation is opaque; that is true by necessity.  Depositors and insureds do not know how their money is invested.  I am here to tell you that that is a feature and not a bug, because the regulators know you can’t analyze the safety of your deposited assets.

In most things, I am a libertarian, but in areas where average people can’t ascertain truth or or falsehood, I support some form of regulation.  Financial promises fall under that rubric, because they are hard to discern.

To close this off, my main point is this: people want financial intermediation, particularly during the bear phases of the financial cycle.  They want to be protected, and transact, and save.  It is reasonable that the government regulates this, because the ability to make future promises that people rely on is valuable to society as a whole.

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David J. Merkel, CFA, FSA — 2010-present, I am working on setting up my own equity asset management shop, tentatively called Aleph Investments. It is possible that I might do a joint venture with someone else if we can do more together than separately. From 2008-2010, I was the Chief Economist and Director of Research of Finacorp Securities. I did a many things for Finacorp, mainly research and analysis on a wide variety of fixed income and equity securities, and trading strategies. Until 2007, I was a senior investment analyst at Hovde Capital, responsible for analysis and valuation of investment opportunities for the FIP funds, particularly of companies in the insurance industry. I also managed the internal profit sharing and charitable endowment monies of the firm. From 2003-2007, I was a leading commentator at the investment website RealMoney.com. Back in 2003, after several years of correspondence, James Cramer invited me to write for the site, and I wrote for RealMoney on equity and bond portfolio management, macroeconomics, derivatives, quantitative strategies, insurance issues, corporate governance, etc. My specialty is looking at the interlinkages in the markets in order to understand individual markets better. I no longer contribute to RealMoney; I scaled it back because my work duties have gotten larger, and I began this blog to develop a distinct voice with a wider distribution. After three-plus year of operation, I believe I have achieved that. Prior to joining Hovde in 2003, I managed corporate bonds for Dwight Asset Management. In 1998, I joined the Mount Washington Investment Group as the Mortgage Bond and Asset Liability manager after working with Provident Mutual, AIG and Pacific Standard Life. My background as a life actuary has given me a different perspective on investing. How do you earn money without taking undue risk? How do you convey ideas about investing while showing a proper level of uncertainty on the likelihood of success? How do the various markets fit together, telling us us a broader story than any single piece? These are the themes that I will deal with in this blog. I hold bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Johns Hopkins University. In my spare time, I take care of our eight children with my wonderful wife Ruth.