From far away, things that are very different look alike. I grew up in a family of musicians and English professors. To them, the entire financial industry seemed corrupt. When I worked in finance – first on Wall Street and then in venture capital – I saw that the reality was much more nuanced. Some finance is productive and useful and some is corrupt and parasitic.
Most financial markets start out with a productive purpose. Derivatives like futures and options started out as a way for companies to reduce risk in non-core areas, for example for airlines to hedge their exposure to oil prices and transnationals to hedge their exposure to currency fluctuations. The sellers of these derivatives were aggregators who pooled risk, much like insurance companies do. The overall effect was a net reduction in risk to our economy without hampering growth and returns.
Then speculators entered the market, creating more complicated derivative products and betting with borrowed money. This was defended as a way to increase liquidity and efficiency. But it came at the cost of making the system more complicated and susceptible to abuse. Worst of all, these so-called innovations increased the overall risk to the system, something we saw quite vividly during the recent financial crisis.
Venture capital is a shining example of capitalism just like Adam Smith pictured it, where private vice really does lead to public virtue. Consider, for example, two of the largest areas of venture investment: biotech and cleantech. Here we see the best and brightest – top science graduates from places like MIT and Stanford – devoting their lives to curing cancer and developing new energy sources. These students may be motivated by good will, but need not be, since they will also get rich if they succeed.
A strong case can be made that the financial industry needs significantly more regulation, particularly around big banks and derivatives markets. But it would be a tragic mistake to create regulations that hinder angel investing and venture capital. From the outside, VC and Wall Street might appear similar, but the closer you get, the more you understand how different they really are.