Streetwise Professor

September 15, 2011

Stick to Tormenting Timmy! Please

I have a warm spot in my heart for German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble, because of his periodic slapdowns of Timmy!  (I think there is another slapdown-ready opportunity arising, given Timmy!’s–and Obama’s–recent penchant for giving the Euros gratuitous advice on dealing with their existential crisis.)

But he said a couple of things recently that give me pause.  First (h/t R) is this speech:

German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble said that while markets are the most efficient means of creating wealth in an economy, they can also be irrational and therefore need regulation.

“Markets are the best means of finding solutions, but they’re not always rational” and can destroy themselves, Schaeuble said today in a speech in Berlin. “That’s why they need rules and bounds.”

It is the job of the government to create an order that promotes, rather than hinders, moral behavior, Schaeuble also said at an event organized by the Catholic Academy in Berlin.

On an abstract level, that’s not really objectionable, because only some anarchists deny the need for market rules.  (Anarchocapitalists believe that rules shouldn’t be imposed, but created by cooperation and consent.)  The questions are: What rules are the right ones?  Where should the bounds be set?  Who decides?  How?

In this speech, Schaeuble gave an example of how he answers these questions, and those answers suggest that his pro-market rhetoric is boilerplate camouflaging another statist control freak:

German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble on Wednesday called for regulating all innovative financial products and urged banning so-called over-the-counter trade.

“We must apply the rules of transparency to all market participants–hedge funds and private equity funds,” Schaeuble said at an event sponsored by the Konrad Adenauer Foundation and the Catholic Academy ahead of a planned state visit to Germany by Pope Benedict XVI.

We should ban OTC trade where possible, because we don’t have transparency (in these markets). And then we should try to regulate all innovative financial products. We cannot achieve everything through regulation, but we can try to tighten the rules.”

Another slave to the god of transparency.   Like that will solve everything.  And apparently a market in which consenting adults make mutually advantageous transactions about which they don’t reveal everything is far worse than no market at all.

I would further note that there is no perfectly transparent market.  Futures and stock exchanges have a great deal of pre-trade and post-trade price transparency, but the identity of traders is concealed: the markets are anonymous, and the buyer does not know the identity of the seller.  Thus, even on exchanges not everything is transparent.  OTC, the buyer typically knows the seller, but there is less pre- and post-trade transparency.  There are trade-offs involved, and different mechanisms have developed to permit market participants to choose which kinds of transparency rules work best for them.  The side-by-side existence of exchanges and OTC markets gives choices that can accommodate differences in the costs and benefits of alternative forms and levels of transparency across market participants.

And if transparency is such an unalloyed good in markets, Herr Schaeuble, does the same principle hold for governments?  Is Germany’s government a paragon of transparency?  Do you conduct all of your discussions and decisions in the full public glare?  Does your government have secrets?  Does Europe’s?  Is this a good thing?

We all know the answers to those questions.  It would be quite illuminating to hear why secrecy–very incomplete transparency–is acceptable and even necessary for governments that wield vast coercive powers, but some modicum of secrecy is completely unacceptable for private actors who cannot coerce anybody.

Schaueble’s remarks, and the place where he delivered them, suggest a typical European conservative mindset that is ambivalent, at best, towards markets and individual choice.  Hayek’s essay “Why I Am Not a Conservative” provides an illuminating analysis of this mindset.

So please confine yourself to putting the (verbal) boot into Timmy!, Wolfie.  There are enough control freaks about, thank you.

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