The market’s moral slide?

If the left now thinks there is too much greed, we are entitled to ask why did they do so little to stem it between 1997 and 2011?

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Markets were never moral
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John Redwood MP
On 8 November 2011 16:09

There is now much discussion of the immorality of the market.

The latest fashion is to say that financial deregulation, dated conveniently to 1986 to place it under Margaret Thatcher, caused people to suddenly become self centred, materialistic and greedy in a way which has wrecked our finances, markets and banking ever since.

This is bad history and sloppy politics.

There was a continuous rise in the volume and detail of financial regulation in the period 1986- 2011. Most of this period in the UK saw the country governed by a left of centre government with a large majority. They had the power to reverse any trends and deregulations they did not like.

They themselves completely changed the system of financial regulation in 1997, 14 years ago. They formalised more of the regulation, and put the banks under a large new body of law designed by the FSA.

The truth is the last decade saw an explosion of extra regulation by both the UK and the EU. It saw substantial regulation by the global banking regulators of Basle. Collectively they made a huge error of judgement, allowing too much bank credit to be sustained on too small a banking foundation. It was a case of bad regulation, not deregulation.

Markets were never moral. They did not enjoy a golden age of good behaviour. There were always some greedy people and companies in them.  Markets are neither all bad nor all good. Saints buy from sinners. The moral lend to the immoral. Nasty people make things for nice people. Christians trade with atheists.  

Markets are the results of the choices and actions of millions of people and companies deciding what to buy and what to sell. A market does not have a collective view or a moral outlook.

When a market is moving rapidly in one direction then it can be a useful fiction to say “the market is optimistic because…” or the “market does not believe in Greek state finances because…”

Even in these more extreme conditions every transaction needs a buyer as well as a seller. Buyers and sellers by definition usually have different views. The attribution of an attitude or opinion to a market is an attempt to explain price movements by trying to identify the motivation of the majority of traders.

Markets are amoral. They are a babble of voices, a mixture of the well informed, the opinionated, the frightened and the optimistic, the lost and the wrongheaded. They are important ways of allowing people to change their assets, raise cash, invest and make economic decisions. They are not places to come to a single moral conclusion.

That is why markets need regulating. That is why politicians are elected to write laws to control them, or to impose a moral view on the actions of the many.

It is generally agreed in a free society that we need laws against theft and damage to other people’s property. We need a law of contract, and some law to ensure honest dealing. We need laws to stop individuals and companies gaining too much power in ways which can distort a market or can prevent other people proper access to it.

Markets allow the moral to flourish if they wish by using the market. Investors can invest in moral ways. Entrepreneurs and charities can raise money for good purposes from the market. Large companies in recent years have pioneered better employment practices, better products and services, and the greening of their actions. Market pressures and market money allowed them to do these things.

Governments have to decide how to prevent abuses and immoral purposes stalking the markets. They have done so through a myriad of regulations. Some of these work and are needed. Some have failed. Some have been badly implemented and missed the targets.

We do not have unbridled greed because we have insufficient financial regulation. Markets are never going to abolish all greed. Regulators have to decide what to stop and how to stop them.

If the left now thinks there is too much greed, we are entitled to ask why did they do so little to stem it between 1997 and 2011?

The Rt Hon John Redwood MP is the Member of UK Parliament for Wokingham and the Chairman of the Conservative Economic Affairs Committee. His articles are cross-posted on his blog by agreement. 

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