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1/31/2009
11:45 AM
Bob Evans
Bob Evans
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Does The Internet Help Markets Malfunction?

Consider: "So the Internet does not only facilitate the functioning of markets; it may also facilitate their malfunction." If that is in fact the case, does your company's application of the Internet's information free-flow have downsides as well as benefits? And if so, are you fully aware of what those unintended and unhelpful consequences are?

Consider: "So the Internet does not only facilitate the functioning of markets; it may also facilitate their malfunction." If that is in fact the case, does your company's application of the Internet's information free-flow have downsides as well as benefits? And if so, are you fully aware of what those unintended and unhelpful consequences are?"It may be that bubbles and crashes are a natural part of capitalist markets. What's more, it may be that the very factors that have recently increased the efficiency of markets have also led to an increased propensity for bubbles….Not only do we have instant information, reduced transaction costs make it easy for anyone to participate. Stock trades are virtually costless. Better information means that credit ratings, and therefore credit, is instantly available (though lenders must choose to use the information). E-mail and text messaging mean that communication between potential investors is free and nearly instantaneous." So wrote Paul H. Rubin, professor of economics and law at Emory University, in a recent editorial in The Wall Street Journal.

Rubin's piece, headlined "Instant Info Is a Two-Edged Sword," presents an interesting take on the whole question of whether technology has a "dark side" or whether all the blame and all the credit belong to the human operator. Malicious hackers, virtual child porn, online swindles and scams of near-limitless variety, intellectual-property theft, Web-based organized-crime rings, and even the apparent outbreak of something called online bullying are the progeny of the dazzling new technology that's saturated our world over the past 15 years.

But those nefarious brats certainly have some sweeter-natured siblings that enrich our lives daily in communication, entertainment, education, medical care, and a generally improving global business environment that's raised the standard of living for hundreds of millions of people around the world. And Rubin points out that as these benefits from technology accrue, so, too, is there a perhaps-inevitable buildup of rules, policies, and regulations designed to shield us from the technologically amplified baser sides of our nature.

"First, we can be sure that more regulation of financial (and perhaps other) markets is coming," writes Rubin. "The regulators have a difficult task: It will be very hard for them to eliminate the downside of the Internet and other improvements in financial markets without simultaneously eliminating the benefits."

And achieving that balance, he says, "may not be possible: We may have to live in a world of high growth punctuated by bubbles. Maybe the best the regulators can do is try to moderate the severity of crashes."

Well, we've all freely purchased tickets on this roller coaster and we're learning -- sometimes quite painfully -- about gravity and acceleration and exhilaration. But we should also be learning not to get on that roller coaster in a lightning storm, or after we've eaten a half-gallon of chili with a bucket of cheese fries and two milkshakes, or after we've been told the coaster has gone off the rails several times in the past month.

There is a ghost in the machine -- and it is us.

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