Tag Archives: Deborah Lucas

In Shanghai, charting the future of global finance

Third MIT Sloan finance forum examines interconnected finance systems and China’s role in the world economy

Professor Robert Merton

More than 200 finance professionals and MIT Sloan alumni gathered in Shanghai this month for a day of discussion on the future of modern finance, the third in a series of forums that bring MIT Sloan faculty around the world for frank discussions about finance and policy.

“[MIT Sloan] has the responsibility to lead and develop what the world needs for finance,” dean David Schmittlein told the audience at the July 19 event. “It’s important for us to develop the concepts and methods that will allow us to develop the complex, sophisticated financial systems that the world needs, with a resilience that the world also needs.”

“The world needs more smart people who understand complex financial systems,” he said. “Not less.” MIT Sloan this year launched the MIT Sloan Center for Finance and Policy.

Sound modern financial systems are built using expert knowledge to interpret vast amounts of data. To contribute to the discussion, MIT Sloan professors Deborah Lucas, Robert Merton, Jun Pan, and Stephen Ross shared their latest research on financial models and systems that address some of the challenges in modern finance.

And MIT Sloan alumni covered a range of topics in two panels. On one, two of China’s top financial professionals discussed the role of finance in emerging markets, while another group discussed ways to lead the financial organizations of the future.

Finance is becoming increasingly important for emerging markets

Shanghai, China’s financial capital and aspiring world financial center, was an apt location to discuss the role of finance in the growth of emerging markets. Leaders in emerging markets are seeking to better manage growth, gathering more knowledge and talent from the financial field than ever before.

“The era when very few Chinese financial professionals were up to date with the latest academic research findings is over,” said Haizhou Huang, managing director and head of the sales and trading department of China International Capital Corporation. There is an “ever-increasing number of Chinese financiers being educated at leading institutions like MIT Sloan,” he said.

Emerging markets are also challenging the post-2008 financial crisis system. Huang pointed out the benefit of China’s lack of heritage in finance, suggesting it gives China “an opportunity to create finance for the future, with a completely new financial system.”

Interconnectedness in finance can be a strength

Increased interconnectivity of global financial markets, a phenomenon of the modern financial system that was widely commented on during the crisis, was a key theme throughout the forum.

Professor Robert Merton, a Nobel laureate, introduced a new approach for analyzing and managing macro financial risks by leveraging the many connections between financial bodies that makes the world of finance so complex.

Merton’s goal is to “figure out ways to convey information with vast connections and numbers in a fashion that’s useful in trying to understand what’s going on.” He believes his approach will help guide finance professionals toward asking prescient questions when examining global markets.

Rather than view the complicated interconnectedness of financial systems as problematic, Merton was optimistic.

“The mere observation of growing connectedness is not in itself a suggestion of contagion or systemic risks. It may even be a reflection of the improvements in the global system,” he said.

MIT Sloan has also held finance forums in New York City and London.

What is the true cost of government-backed credit?

The U.S. government is arguably the largest financial institution in the world. If you add the outstanding stock of government loans, loan guarantees, pension insurance, deposit insurance and the guarantees made by federal entities such as Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, you get to about $18 trillion of government-backed credit. Through those activities, the government has a first-order effect on the allocation of capital and risk in the economy.

Professor Deborah Lucas

The question of what those commitments cost the public is important; accurate cost assessments are necessary for informed decisions by policymakers, effective program management, and meaningful public oversight.  My research and that of others has shown that if one takes a financial economics approach to answering that question — one that is consistent with the methods used by private financial institutions to evaluate such costs — it leads to significantly higher estimates than the approach currently used by the federal government.

At the core of the problem are the rules for government accounting, which by law require that costs for most federal credit programs be estimated using a government borrowing rate for discounting expected cash flows, regardless of the riskiness of those cash flows. That practice systematically understates the cost to the government because it neglects the full cost of risk to taxpayers, who are effectively equity holders in the government’s risky loans and guarantees.

An alternative approach to cost estimation — a fair value approach based on market prices — would fully take into account the cost of risk. Fully accounting for the cost of risk makes a significant difference:  An estimate of the official budgetary cost of credit programs in 2013 shows them as generating savings for the government of $45 billion, whereas a fair value estimate suggests the programs will cost the government about $12 billion.

The understatement of cost has important practical consequences. For example, it may favor expanding student loans over Pell grants because student loans appear to make money for the government. It also creates the opportunity for “budgetary arbitrage,” whereby the government can buy loans at market prices and book a profit that reduces the reported budget deficit, as it did in several instances during the recent financial crisis.

That perspective on how credit program costs should be measured is widely shared by financial economists, although until recently the issue has not received much attention by academics. That changed last month when the Financial Economists Roundtable (FER), of which I am a member, issued a statement on this matter, writing: “The apparent cost advantage of government credit assistance over private lenders is, in the opinion of the FER, primarily due to [government] accounting rules, rather than to any inherent economic advantage of the government.”

According to the FER’s statement, the solution to this undervaluation is to amend current accounting rules to require an approach to cost estimation that fully recognizes the cost of risk in the government’s credit programs. The group maintains (and I agree) that such a change “would make the true budgetary implications of credit assistance more transparent to program administrators, policy makers and the public.”

Prof. Deborah Lucas is the author of “Valuation of Government Policies and Projects.” She previously served as assistant director and chief economist at the Congressional Budget Office.