Thomas Philippon: Finance vs. Wal-Mart: Why are Financial Services so Expensive?: “Despite its fast computers and credit derivatives…

…the current financial system does not seem better at transferring funds from savers to borrowers than the financial system of 1910. The role of the finance industry is to produce, trade and settle financial contracts that can be used to pool funds, share risks, transfer resources, produce information and provide incentives. Financial intermediaries are compensated for providing these services. Total compensation of financial intermediaries (profits, wages, salary and bonuses) as a fraction of GDP is at an all-time high, around 9% of GDP. What does society get in return? Or, in other words, what does the finance industry produce? I measure the output of the finance industry by looking at all issuances of bonds, loans, stocks (IPOs, SEOs), as well as liquidity services to firms and households. Measured output of the financial sector is indeed higher than it has been in much of the past. But, unlike the income earned by the sector, it is not unprecedentedly high. Historically, the unit cost of intermediation has been somewhere between 1.3% and 2.3% of assets. However, this unit cost has been trending upward since 1970 and is now significantly higher than in the past. In other words, the finance industry of 1900 was just as able as the finance industry of 2010 to produce loans, bonds and stocks, and it was certainly doing it more cheaply. This is counter-intuitive, to say the least. How is it possible for today’s finance industry not to be significantly more efficient than the finance industry of John Pierpont Morgan?… Technological improvements in finance have mostly been used to increase secondary market activities, i.e., trading. Trading activities are many times larger than at any time in previous history. Trading costs have decreased, but I find no evidence that increased liquidity has led to better (i.e., more informative) prices or to more insurance.