A few months ago I did a post about the role top-down decision-making played in the financial crisis. I wasn’t super satisfied with my finished product, and it turns out I should have just waited a few weeks for this amazing article from Amar Bhidé to come out:
In recent times, though, a new form of centralized control has taken root—one that is the work not of old-fashioned autocrats, committees, or rule books but of statistical models and algorithms. These mechanistic decision-making technologies have value under certain circumstances, but when misused or overused they can be every bit as dysfunctional as a Muscovite politburo. Consider what has just happened in the financial sector: A host of lending officers used to make boots-on-the-ground, case-by-case examinations of borrowers’ creditworthiness. Unfortunately, those individuals were replaced by a small number of very similar statistical models created by financial wizards and disseminated by Wall Street firms, rating agencies, and government-sponsored mortgage lenders. This centralization and robotization of credit flourished as banks were freed from many regulatory limits on their activities and regulators embraced top-down, mechanistic capital requirements. The result was an epic financial crisis and the near-collapse of the global economy. Finance suffered from a judgment deficit, and all of us are paying the price.
As we rebuild from the economic crisis, we must renew the search for the appropriate balance—in finance and in other endeavors—not just between centralization and decentralization but also between case-by-case judgment and standardized rules. The right level of control is an elusive and moving target: Economic dynamism is best maintained by minimizing centralized control, but the very dynamism that individual initiative unleashes tends to increase the degree of control needed. And how to centralize—whether through case-by case judgment, a rule book, or a computer model—is as difficult a question as how much. But these are questions that we cannot afford to stop asking…
Over the past several decades, centralized, mechanistic finance elbowed aside the traditional model. Loan officers made way for mortgage brokers. At the height of the housing boom, in 2004, some 53,000 mortgage brokerage companies, with an estimated 418,700 employees, originated 68% of all residential loans in the United States. In other words, fewer than a third of all loans were originated by an actual lender. The brokers’ role in the credit process is mainly to help applicants fill out forms. In fact, hardly anyone now makes case-by-case mortgage credit judgments. Mortgages are granted or denied (and new mortgage products like option ARMs are designed) using complex models that are conjured up by a small number of faraway rocket scientists and take little heed of the specific facts on the ground.
It’s one of those essays that’s hard to excerpt because the whole thing is good. Check it out.