Risk Premia

Brad Delong has an interesting article in which he blames today’s large risk premia on the failure of institutions. The government isn’t providing adequate fiscal and monetary support and financial institutions aren’t working in a way that “mobilizes risk bearing capacity.”

If you invest $10,000 in the S&P for the next five years, you can reasonably expect (with enormous upside and downside risks) to make about 7% per year, leaving you with a compounded profit in inflation-adjusted dollars of $4,191. If you invest $10,000 in the five-year TIPS, you can confidently expect a five-year loss of $510.

That is an extraordinary gap in the returns that you can reasonably expect. It naturally raises the question: why aren’t people moving their money from TIPS (and US Treasury bonds and other safe assets) to stocks (and other relatively risky assets)?

People have different reasons. And many people’s thinking is not terribly coherent. But there appear to be two main explanations.

First, many people are uncertain that current conditions will continue. […]

Second, many people do see the 7% return on stocks as a reasonable expectation, and would jump at the chance to grab it – plus the opportunity of surprises on the upside – but they do not think that they can afford to run the downside risks. Indeed, the world seems a much more risky place than it seemed five or ten years ago. The burden of existing debts is high, and investors’ key goal is loss-avoidance, not profit-seeking.

Both reasons reflect a massive failure of our economic institutions. The first reason betrays a lack of trust that governments can and will do the job that they learned how to do in the Great Depression: keep the flow of spending stable so that big depressions with long-lasting, double-digit unemployment do not recur. The second reveals the financial industry’s failure adequately to mobilize society’s risk-bearing capacity for the service of enterprise.

As individuals, we appear to view a gamble that has a roughly 50% chance of doubling our wealth and a roughly 50% chance of halving it as worthy of consideration – not a no-brainer, but not out of the question, either. Well-functioning financial markets would mobilize that risk-bearing capacity and put it to use for the benefit of all, so that people who did not think that they could run the risks of stock ownership could lay that risk off onto others for a reasonable fee.

As an economist, I find this state of affairs frustrating. We know, or at least we ought to know, how to build political institutions that accept the mission of macroeconomic stabilization, and how to build financial institutions to mobilize risk-bearing capacity and spread risk. Yet, to a remarkable degree, we have failed to do so.

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About ozidar

I'm an Assistant Professor of Economics at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business and a Faculty Research Fellow at National Bureau of Economic Research. You can follow me on twitter @omzidar. http://faculty.chicagobooth.edu/owen.zidar/index.html
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