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On Regulation and Innovation in the Financial Industry

Yesterday President Obama said

We started taking shortcuts. We started living on credit, instead of building up savings. We saw businesses focus more on rebranding and repackaging than innovating and developing new ideas that improve our lives.

But contrast that with this, from November of last year:

The Securities and Exchange Commission this week issued a formal cease and desist order against peer-to-peer lender Prosper Marketplace Inc.

The San Francisco company said in October that it was no longer accepting new lenders or loans as federal regulators consider the company’s application to establish a secondary market for loans made on its person-to-person lending site. That process is expected to take months.

It’s easy to talk the talk about wanting innovation, but government regulation and innovation are inimicable. It’s hard enough to start a new company. It’s next to impossible for a startup to comply with government regulation that is opaque, one-size-fits-all, slightly different in each of the 50 states and written by lobbyists to benefit incumbents. To comply with the regulations, companies have to hire expensive, well-connected lawyers and go through a several month process. As an early-stage investor, I probably wouldn’t invest in working cold fusion if it required the company to be government regulated.

I know everybody and their mother thinks the solution to all our financial system woes is more regulation, but it’s worth considering that the US financial services industry is probably the most heavily regulated industry in the world (and if it’s not, then it’s second only to our incredibly inefficient healthcare industry.) It seems everybody and their mother thinks that if beating your head against a brick wall isn’t working, well, just beat harder.

I’m not against regulation, really. I just think that if the regulation we have isn’t working, we need to go back and figure out why, rather than layering on a new layer of regs. We should also go back and figure out who wrote our current regulations and burn them in effigy, to better motivate the current regulation writers. Nothing focuses the mind like a hanging.

The first principle in writing new regulations should be an explicit statement of what we are trying to achieve. And if what we are trying to achieve is that no one loses money ever, then perhaps what we want is not a financial system at all. That goal would be best achieved by returning to the gold standard and issuing safes to every home.

But whatever the goals are, one of the primary ones should be to promote innovation. And one of the primary goals of that innovation should be promoting diversity of business models. After increased regulation, the primary prescription in the mass media for the financial system is making sure that no company is too big to fail. This worthy-sounding goal is a non-starter in today’s economy. Even if every financial services firm in October of last year had been split into 100 identical sub-firms, we would have had the same problems. Paul Kedrosky has talked about making sure that firms are less tightly coupled as one solution to rolling failures. While I believe this, I wonder if it’s possible to implement.

But if you turn the problem 90 degrees on a completely different axis, we can address the tight coupling along functional axes: if we had many types of firms, then even if they are financially intertwined, only a small subset will fail in any given crisis. This idea–that diversity is key to the resilience of an ecosystem–is widely understood by ecologists, biologists and evolutionary scientists. The benefits of biodiversity are inarguable.

We need an appreciation of diversity in our financial services companies. We need to encourage innovative startups that try to provide crucial financial services–like converting savings into investment–in new ways. We need hundreds of them, understanding that most will fail. (Innovation is akin to an evolutionary process in this.) We need to change our regulations to encourage innovation, rather than discourage it. The president needs to stop placing blame and start planting seeds.

And we need to get over the fact that some blameless people will lose some of their money some of the time. Because with the financial services monoculture we have now, every taxpayer loses a lot of money every ten years or so.