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Free Riding in Finance: A Primer

Many features of our financial system—institutions like banks and insurance companies, as well as the configuration of securities markets—are a consequence of legal conventions (the rules about property rights and taxes) and the costs associated with obtaining and verifying information. When we teach money and banking, three concepts are key to understanding the structure of finance: adverse selection, moral hazard, and free riding. The first two arise from asymmetric information, either before (adverse selection) or after (moral hazard) making a financial arrangement (see our earlier primers here and here).

This primer is about the third concept: free riding. Free riding is tied to the concept of a public good, so we start there. Then, we offer three examples where free riding plays a key role in the organization of finance: credit ratings; schemes like the Madoff scandal; and efforts to secure financial stability more broadly....

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How to Ensure the Crisis Provision of Safe Assets

Changes in financial regulation are having a profound impact on the demand for safe assets—assets with a fixed nominal value that may be converted at all times without loss into the means of payment. Not only is demand for safe assets on the rise, but the ability of the private sector to produce them is being constrained by new rules that limit the extent and nature of things like securitizations.

So far, the fallout from increased demand and constrained supply looks reasonably benign. But for several years now, broad financial conditions have been very calm, with measures of financial volatility and stress at or near long-term lows. What will happen when the financial system comes under stress again? What if there is a drop in risk tolerance (or a surge in risk awareness) and a flight to safety that causes a jump in the demand for safe assets or a plunge in the supply? Or, as in 2008, what will happen if both materialize at the same time? We need to be ready.

As we will explain in more detail, central banks in advanced economies can satisfy the heightened need for safe assets under stress (as well as the precautionary demand in normal times) by offering commercial banks committed lines of credit for a fee against collateral, as the central banks in Australia and South Africa currently do. In our view, this mechanism for ensuring sufficient supply of safe assets in a crisis has important advantages compared to one in which the central bank operates perpetually—in good times and bad—with a very large balance sheet.

To see how this would work, we start with an explanation of post-crisis liquidity regulation....

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The even cloudier future of peer-to-peer lending

In early 2015, we expressed skepticism about the prospects for peer-to-peer (P2P) lending. Like other efforts to slash financial transactions costs (think “block chain”), P2P was all the rage. The notion was that the lenders and borrowers could cut out the middle man, “disrupting” traditional finance.

For that to work, for P2P investors to get an attractive risk-adjusted return, it would have to embody a technology that can screen and monitor borrowers at a lower cost than do existing intermediaries in the long-established sector of consumer credit. That seemed especially doubtful in a competitive industry like credit card lending, which is what P2P lending often turns out to be...


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The cloudy future of peer-to-peer lending

Peer-to-peer (P2P) lending is all the rage. The idea is that individuals can bypass traditional financial intermediaries and borrow directly from investors at lower cost (or obtain credit that banks would not provide). Improving the lot of borrowers would be great if it works. But the key question is whether lenders can efficiently screen and monitor borrowers to get an attractive risk-adjusted return on their investment. In effect, individuals would be beating the technology that traditional lenders use. It’s far too early to tell, but there is plenty of scope for skepticism...

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