What would the United States look like without a financial industry? This question is the starting point of my recent paper, “Should Wall-Street Be Occupied? An Overlooked Price Externality of Financial Intermediation.” At first glance, the recent crisis suggests a grim answer to this question. As financial activity collapsed, the real economy halted. Lack of financing was associated with record-level unemployment, low investment, and overall reduction in economic activity.
Much of the thinking about the social value of finance has been framed in these terms: we know that finance is important because it performs many socially useful roles, and when financing “dries up,” the economy suffers. However, this logic is somewhat flawed, because the consequences of a shock to financing may be different from a permanent reduction in financing. Equating the two is similar to equating the mental state of someone who just got divorced with the mental state of someone who is single: disappearance is very different from absence, because presence creates dependence. Once you have a spouse, you become emotionally attached, as well as financially and logistically dependent. Once that spouse leaves, it may be difficult to re-adjust.