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Money for Nothing

One of the fundamental assumptions of free-market theory is that information is frictionless. A competitor introducing a higher-value laundry detergent drives innovation only if consumers know about the product. Renewable sources of electricity will be adopted only if public utilities can mothball their existing fossil-fuel-based generating plants – made more difficult when the bonds are still being paid off.

For much of the second half of the twentieth century, the American worker benefited from friction in the delivery of goods and services. That friction took many forms: shipping costs, brand loyalty, and legal and financial rules. Today, globalization of markets forces us to compete with much cheaper sources of labor overseas, and the laziness of American managers (as compared to German and Asian counterparts that invested in skill development) means that jobs bleed across our borders.

The last redoubt of friction is financial services. The Baby Boomers generation accumulated huge retirement reserves, and Reagan-era fiscal policies have driven government deeply into debt. The dollar is the currency of choice for international business. Finally, expensive real-time trading technology is a high barrier to entry.

To those that understood the dynamics, it was no surprise that in the fiscal year following the 2008 meltdown, financial services companies reaped fully half of the profits enjoyed by American business. The system was rigged in their favor.

Some information about the practices of the industry have been revealed by those investigating the collapse of mortgage equities and the Ivan Boesky pyramid scheme. Every financial advisor banks on insider trading. Their job is to build relationships that allow them to get their clients to the trough first when an opportunity is created. No outsider can hope to compete.

Now the World Economic Forum has weighed in on the dangers to this system of artificial intelligence. Substituting a relentless, unbiased algorithm for your investment advisor ensures that you will always be given the best deal available. Your loan may come from Malaysia instead of Wall Street, but the impact of that truth is to drive down costs in the financial services sector.

Yes, the interim will be messy as the trading algorithms expose instability and self-serving in our existing financial system. But the end result will be a system with far less friction. As promised in free-market theory, money will find those inspired to create value, and bypass those motivated solely by greed.

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