Friday, May 21, 2010

Preposterous finance

This week, the Senate is apparently limping toward some sort of financial regulation package. Simon Johnson spells out the one point hardly anyone in power will assert and that we all of us need to use to evaluate whatever law emerges:

The idea that our economy needs banks at the scale and with the characteristics of JPMorgan Chase, Citigroup, Bank of America, Wells Fargo, Goldman Sachs or Morgan Stanley is preposterous.


The former International Monetary Fund economist has been on that message ever since the fall of 2008; he contends that if the United States doesn't break the political power of the financial oligarchy, we can only expect a repeat of the economic blowout we're currently suffering.

Curiously, I have carried away a somewhat more comforting message from Johnson and James Kwak's book on the crisis, 13 Bankers: The Wall Street Takeover and the Next Financial Meltdown. The authors place current events within the longer story of our country's oscillation between polarities set early in our existence: Alexander Hamilton's insistence on the new nation's need for a central bank and Thomas Jefferson's consistent distrust of bankers and their phony money schemes. When it comes to banks, we can't live with 'em, and we can't entirely live without 'em. (They don't mention that Jefferson personally was usually over his head in debts in addition to having a wise understanding of how bankers might undermine democracy.)

Then they lead us through the story of how Wall Street became so big, so foolish, so powerful, and so greedy as to be able to crash global finance a couple of years ago. Their account is easy to understand; of the considerable number of books I've read on our current financial troubles, this is the one I'd recommend first. If you are still trying to figure out how the housing boom happened and what these derivatives are, this is the volume to read.

This one is an encyclopedia of stupidity and cupidity and Johnson and Kwak name names. Learn here where in the Wall Street system most of President Obama's financial appointees worked before joining the government, for example. They also paint a clear picture of the gusher of campaign money that flows to our politicians from the financial profiteers.

New to me were the outrageous institutional arrangements that have ensured that banks got what they wanted even if they were ostensibly subject to regulation. Washington has an alphabet soup of regulatory agencies, but before the crash,

financial institutions that fell under multiple regulatory agencies were allowed to select their primary regulator. As a result, regulatory agencies had to compete for funding [fees] by convincing financial institutions to accept their regulation, which created the incentives for a "race to the bottom," in which agencies attract "customers" by offering relatively lax regulatory enforcement.

No wonder Wall Street ran wild.

Yet Johnson and Kwak do not believe that all is lost to the power of the U.S. financial oligarchy. They counsel patience and persistence.

These ideas will not be adopted overnight. In 1900, almost no reasonable person thought there was any basis for capping the size of private businesses ...By 1910, the consensus view had shifted dramatically. The power of the industrial trusts and the details of their anticompetitive behavior were sufficiently obvious to provoke a political backlash. ...Our goal today is to change the conventional wisdom about enormous banks.

That seems right. If there is anyone in the Senate who is relaibly committed to the Jeffersonian democratic (small "d") vision of the country, it's probably Bernie Sanders. Today he commented on the emerging reform bill:

"I think this is a step forward, there's no question about that," Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) told reporters after today's vote [to move the bill forward]. "I think it brings much greater regulation, I think it brings much greater transparency. But I think, frankly, it is nowhere near as strong as it could be. I think at the end of the day we are going to have to address the need to break up these very very huge financial institutions, which I believe, that if they start teetering in the future they will have to be bailed out, and that's why you ought to break them up now."

You can follow the views of Johnson and Kwak daily at The Baseline Scenario.

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