In his new book, A Call for Judgment: Sensible Finance for a Dynamic Economy, economist and Tufts University professor Amar Bhidé laments a banking system that bases decisions on complex algorithms rather than good old-fashioned loan reviews, a practice that has greatly choked off financing to small business. Here are excerpts from a conversation between Inc.com senior producer Matt Quinn and Bhidé about how we got into this mess—and how we might get out of it.
Lending used to be a subjective matter. Why did we wind up with a system of stringent rules?
First, there was an ethos that developed in academia that said that all risks can be quantified. What economists did was say the stuff that we cannot quantify is really on the margin. And what's essential to risk, we can pretend to reduce to one or two numbers. Once you do that, then you can create a machine. If you're required to think of risk in a broad, holistic kind of way, it's much more time-consuming.
Implicitly and explicitly, the government embraced this view of risk. Almost unwittingly, [Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac] created the largest mechanistic model of lending in the world simply by saying we will underwrite the risk of mortgages if they meet XYZ criteria. If you followed the model for a loan, the government would take it.
The interesting part is that not all lending can be equally mechanized and scaled up. And therein lies the rub. It means that if I'm a bank, and I want to expand, I'm going to favor the activity where I can put pedal to metal fastest.
And small-business lending does not fit into that mold.
Correct. It was and remains an activity that requires a banker to go and talk to the borrower. Analysts can pretend that all housing loans are the same, but with small business, the pretending completely defies belief. So small business gets the short end of the stick.
What about the bank bailout? Why did so little money reach small businesses?
The way to get more credit into the hands of the small-business owners has been long impaired, and for the money to reach the people who need it, you need more channels. Small-business lending requires a mechanism that frankly will take a long time to rebuild.
How can the U.S. revive small-business lending?
The government should demand that any depository institution whose liabilities are ultimately guaranteed by the taxpayer make its loans prudently—where a banker and an examiner understand the risks and where each loan is made with a case-by-case examination of the risk in the bank. Small-business lending will remain risky. But there's a difference between a risk taken after a bank has obtained a deep understanding of the situation and a risk taken based on algorithms or rules that do not in fact make a lending decision safer.
What role should regulation play?
I think one of the great strengths of America is people's willingness to borrow and consume in the expectation of a better tomorrow. That is one of the things that distinguishes America from Europe. I think it's fantastic that three million iPads have been sold even in a recession. But that primal urge needs to have a brake applied to it sometimes and the brakes used to be provided by the banking system. Something healthy and useful was taken to extremes. It becomes insane. It's like, protein is good for you so you go on an all protein diet.
For regulators, instead of continuously experimenting with things like quantitative easing, why not pay attention to the things we know are bad?
But there's no hard and fast rule that says more regulation is good or more regulation is bad. You have to look at the facts of the case. And the facts said with banks that self-policing did not work. We ought to examine the brakes.