Trading in risk

The excellent essay aggregator The Browser linked this week to an essay by Steve Randy Waldman on the relationship between freedom and risk. It’s an interesting piece and well worth reading. I want to instead talk about the blurb that The Browser wrote to recommend it:

Learned essay on the contradictions between freedom and risk. We almost all want freedom, but few of us want to carry the risks that go with freedom. The history of finance is the history of attempts to lay off or mitigate risk: all of which are doomed to failure. The risk has to accumulate somewhere. And, as in 2008, it eventually blows up.

I know I shouldn’t take this too seriously—it is, after all, just a little hook to encourage readers to click on the link—but I think there are a couple of important things to mention.

I am extensively on record that economics is not the same thing as finance, but of course they are related. Let’s say for the moment that if we can think of economics as being about the allocation of scarce resources, we can think of finance as being about the allocation of scarce capital or money. At the core of economic theory is the idea of mutually beneficial trade: it is possible that we can trade resources and both be better off than before. More than that: a trade willingly entered into by two parties with good information on the things being traded seems almost tautologically mutually beneficial. If it doesn’t benefit both, why do it?

Now of course “good information” is important. For example, when you sell me a used car knowing that it is in fact a few miles away from becoming kaput, I may later be upset. Similarly, in finance, if my information on the riskiness of an asset is bad, I may be sad later, and not just in the sense of being unlucky. But the claim that “all [attempts to lay off or mitigate risk] are doomed to failure” is very peculiar. There are two problems here. The easy one first: clearly not all risks “eventually blow up”. This is the point of risk! If all risks eventually come to pass, then surely they are not risks but racing certainties.

The second problem is that where the risk goes matters. Naturally “the risk has to accumulate somewhere”; we cannot magic away risk by passing it around. But where does it end up? Can the trade of a risky asset be mutually beneficial? Yes: if you are more willing to bear the risk than I am, then you will be willing to part with more to buy that risk than I am willing to accept to sell it. You can buy that risk from me—assume it for your own—and we can both be happier. Think of unemployment insurance: for me to lose my job may be catastrophic. I will be destitute; this risk is very costly for me to bear. For an insurance company, the risk that I lose my job is trivial. The insurance company is happy to absolve me of (some of) this risk, and I am happy to pay them a premium to do so. We are both happy. Dare I even say that my freedom is enhanced when I can trade risk in this way?

So yes, the risk accumulates. But the idea behind all trade is that we might be able to send resources to the place where they are most valuable. And so it is with risk: if we can trade risk, perhaps we can have it accumulate in the hands of those to whom it will be the most bearable. While we do not eliminate the risk, we minimize the pain that is caused if the bad outcomes happen. Hey presto!

Of course there is fraud and lies and bad information, and of course some risks can aggregate into systemic kerfuffles, but let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater. Trade in risk is not an inherently destructive activity.

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