Is Finance Too Competitive?

NEW DELHI – Many economists are advocating for regulation that would make banking “boring” and uncompetitive once again. After a crisis, it is not uncommon to hear calls to limit competition. During the Great Depression, the head of the United States National Recovery Administration argued that employers were being forced to lay off workers as a result of “the murderous doctrine of savage and wolfish competition, [of] dog-eat-dog and devil take the hindmost.” He appealed for a more collusive business environment, with the profits made from consumers to be shared between employers and workers.

Concerns about the deleterious effects of competition have always existed, even among those who are not persuaded that government diktat can replace markets, or that intrinsic human goodness is a more powerful motivator than monetary reward and punishment. Where the debate has been most heated, however, concerns the effects of competition on incentives to innovate.

The great Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter believed that innovation was a much more powerful force for human betterment than was ordinary price competition between firms. As a young man, Schumpeter seemed to believe that monopolies deaden the incentive to innovate – especially to innovate radically. Simply put, a monopolist does not like to lose his existing monopoly profits by undertaking innovation that would cannibalize his existing business.

By contrast, if the industry were open to new players, potential entrants, with everything to gain and little to lose, would have a strong incentive to unleash the waves of “creative destruction” that Schumpeter thought so essential to human progress. In a competitive industry, only paranoid incumbents – those constantly striving for betterment – have any hope of surviving.