By: John Brodie Gay & Jeremy Kingston Cynamon
Financial devices, like all technologies, develop – sometimes intentionally, sometimes by historical accident – to benefit particular interests and reinforce certain values at the expense of others. Therefore, the form in which we encounter these various technologies today is not a necessary characteristic of those technologies, but the result of their respective histories. If those histories had unfolded differently, then those technologies might benefit sharply different values and interests. Given this contingency, we can plausibly pursue different ways of repurposing financial devices (as well as technology more generally) and thereby altering the interests and the values they protect. With a bit of imagination, we can realize alternative potentials in these devices.
The sort of argument just previewed has been largely ignored by the left. In general, progressives tend to treat the financial sector as a scapegoat for the ills of society. In our view this is a mistake. There is nothing inherently problematic about finance. Insofar as our contemporary financial practices are troubling, they are troubling because of their execution, not because finance is itself problematic. To the contrary, finance – if directed purposely – can be a great asset to the political programs of any stripe.
Our goal in this short essay is merely to demonstrate the aforementioned contingency and transformative potentials in our financial devices. We argue by way of example, using a peculiar story about the use of credit default swaps after the 2008 mortgage crisis to illustrate our larger themes.
II. FINANCIAL DERIVATIVES
We begin with a rather strange fact: our financial system allows individuals and firms to place side bets on any homeowner’s ability to pay his/her mortgage. Known as financial derivatives, the total amount gambled in these bets can greatly exceed the outstanding amount on the underlying mortgage. Bizarre as it may seem, this is the financier’s utopia: a “complete market” that allows participants to bet on any chance event. Natural catastrophe, the result of an election, even a terrorist attack could be the source of profits for the shrewd gambler.
In theory, these financial derivatives can be tools for prudently distributing risk across parties. In practice, however, the use of financial derivatives often results in dangerous concentrations of risk. As it happens, a significant proliferation of these sorts of financial derivatives coincided with the real estate bubble and the subsequent 2008 mortgage crisis. Though much has been written about that crisis, the story presented in the following section will likely be unfamiliar to most readers – even to those who keep up with this sort of thing. This is probably not a coincidence. The story illustrates the potential inherent in our financial technologies and devices to disrupt the common practices of finance and harness its power for varying purposes.