Friday, July 23, 2010

The Problem of Regulation

The regulatory juggernaut has slowly and eventually reached the gates of wall street.

Regulation, it appears, needs to tackle three issues. First, it should clarify the parties involved. In other words, regulation clarifies attribution or ownership. Secondly, it defines the action required. Finally, it defines the timing for the action. The rest of regulation merely defines the referee and the incentive structure to encourage or prevent the actions. Any regulation without these parts is open to be hijacked or misinterpreted. 

Regulation must clearly specify the action that should or should not be taken by the participants. In most cases, regulation must be designed to rebalance the bargaining power equation. The objective is to prevent the stronger player from taking advantage of the weaker player. The consumer financial protection agency is ideally defining such actions. This part often suffers from necessary and sufficient condition dilemma.

Necessary condition and sufficient conditions are best understood through the example of fire. The existence of fuel, air (or oxygen to be specific) and a spark are necessary conditions for a fire. However existence of a fire is sufficient to prove existence of fuel, air and the spark. Regulators often go to depths defining necessary conditions but often do not define the sufficient condition. Over time, the necessary conditions increase as new special cases are discovered. It makes the regulation unwieldy and creates loopholes in the regulatory paradigm. 

However, just defining the sufficient condition leaves the law ambiguous. This is the type of ambiguity that Paul Volcker likes. However, in the wrong hands such an ambiguity corrupts the system.