Friday, March 20, 2009

Econ 101: Financial Intermediaries

Something in Ethan Lindsey's story on OPB about real estate fraud in Bend caught my attention. Bend attorney Martin Hansen was explaining a crooked deal and made this statement about the deal between the allegedly fraudulent firm and its depositors: “It did not authorize any removal for any purpose whatsoever under any terms in any circumstance. Period. It would just be tantamount to your bank removing money from your savings account to investment in real estate. They don’t have the authority, without your consent.”

Um, just how does he think banking works? In fact, this is precisely what you are doing when you deposit your money in the bank, which is why they pay you interest for the right to use your money. They are required to give you your money on demand, that is true, but they aren't paying you for the pleasure of looking at your stack of cash. They don't need your specific consent to use your money, such consent is part of the contract from the outset.

Which brings up a bigger issue, why are we so interested in getting the banking sector working efficiently again? This is because the banking sector plays such an important role in our economy. All of us with savings have idle money that could be put to productive uses but it is hard for an individual to know about these. Some of us invest directly in startups, stocks, etc. But many of us simply don't have the time knowledge or level of savings to do so. Banks, by consolidating the savings of many individual depositors and making these funds available to loan direct this idle capital to productive uses. This investment is vital for the growth of the economy and benefits us all in general and individually: both depositors and borrowers gain from this transaction that would not have happened without the financial intermediation of the banking system.  

No matter what scale we are talking about, the role of the banking system is essentially the same - taking idle capital from one set of economic actors (whether your neighbor or the Chinese) and directing it to its most productive use (from a new coffee shop to an international conglomerate to a sovereign nation).  Without this essential link between savers and investors, investment general crashes and, well, you can see the result.  

This is why, without a well-functioning credit market the economy is unlikely to turn around and why, like many other economists, I believe the key to the recovery lies in getting the credit markets sorted, and soon.  Everything else is secondary.

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