The following is an excellent excerpt from the book MAKERS AND TAKERS: The Rise of Finance and The Fall of American Business” by Rana Foroohar from Chapter 1: “The Rise of Finance” on page 29 and I quote: “If there is a Godfather of modern finance, it must be Sanford “Sandy” Weill, the former CEO of one of the world’s largest financial institutions, Citigroup. A kid from Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, who grew up to become the world’s most powerful banker, he started his career with $30,000 and rose through Wall Street ranks to lead the megabank that came to epitomize the Too Big to Fail era.
The creation of Citigroup–a merger between Weill’s own Travelers Group (an insurance and investment firm) and Citicorp back in 1998–was a seismic moment in the story of financialization that created the planet’s biggest-ever financial conglomerate. Not only that, but it was also the nail in the coffin of Glass-Steagall, the Depression-era banking legislation that had kept consumers relatively safe from exploitation by financial interests since the 1930s. Weill called the merger “the greatest deal in the history of the financial services industry” and “the crowning of my career.” It was a transaction that would allow the newly formed company to offer pretty much every financial service ever invented, from credit cards to corporate IPO underwriting, high-speed trading to mortgages, investment advice to the sale of any complex security you could imagine, in 160-plus countries, twenty-four hours a day. As with the British Empire in a former era, the sun never set on Citigroup.
So it was quite a moment when, in mid-2012, the emperor had an ideological abdication. Weill, who stepped down as Citi CEO in 2003 and has recently undergone something of an existential crisis over his role in the worst financial crash in eighty years, went on CNBC and declared that pretty much everything he’d believed about the bank, and about finance, was wrong. In fact, he said, if he were to do it over again, Citigroup itself would probably never have come to be. What’s more, the business model that financial institutions have fought to preserve through billions spent on funding campaigns and lobbying Congress had saddled American depositors and taxpayers with unacceptable risks. “What we should probably do is go and split up investment banking from [commercial] banking,” Weill said. “Have banks be deposit takers. Have banks make commercial loans and real estate loans. Have banks do something that’s not going to risk the taxpayer dollars, that’s not going to be Too Big to Fail.
As conversions go, Weill’s was positively biblical. It came four years after a long chain of disastrous decisions by Citigroup and the rest of the Too Big to Fail banks had landed them at the epicenter of the financial crisis, with hundreds of billions of dollars of exploding securities on their books and worried customers on the verge of mass panic that threatened to throw the country into another Great Depression. The crisis ultimately required $1.59 trillion in government bailouts (and another $12 trillion worth of federal guarantees and loans) and even with that, it shaved more off the American economy than any other downturn since the 1930s.
But that wasn’t all.
As the dust settled on the crisis and the American recovery continued to be lackluster, particularly in relation to recoveries past, some policy makers, academics, and rank-and-file consumers began to suspect that something was wrong at a deeper level–namely, that although the financial industry had been set up to support business and to provide the liquidity that firms and individuals needed to prosper, it no longer seemed to serve that function. As Stephen Roach, the former chief economist of Morgan Stanley, put it to me in an interview right after the fall of Lehman Brothers, “finance has simply moved too far from its moorings in the real economy.”
Indeed, as the banks got bailed out and swiftly recovered, things in the real economy grew worse. Bank profits reached record heights, yet loans to businesses and consumers shrank. Corporate earnings were high, yet few companies wanted to invest their cash in Main Street. Instead, managers beholden to the markets disgorged it mainly to rich investors and Wall Street. Meanwhile, America’s largest financial institutions remained as focused as ever on securities trading, the “casino” part of the banking business, since there was no reason not to be. Regulators had yet–and still have yet–to prohibit bankers from eschewing this more profitable type of business in favor of boring, old-fashioned lending. The very riskiest portion of the markets, derivatives trading, actually grew following the crisis. Globally, it was 20 percent bigger in late 2013 than in late 2007 (and US regulators are trying to police it with budgets that haven’t increased much since then).
And that’s just what we can see. Shadow banking, the portion of the financial industry that remains largely unregulated (and includes hedge funds, money market funds, and financial arms of big companies like GE), has grown like kudzu: swelling by more than $1.3 trillion per year since 2011 and reaching $36 trillion today. Through it all, low interest rates set by the Federal Reserve, which were supposed to help individuals, ended up making the rich richer by inflating the stock market rather than improving the ability of real people to refinance their homes. (Most of the housing recovery has been led by investors, as will be covered in chapter 7.)
A Post-Traumatic Nation – Of course, plenty of people will ask why, if finance is having such a dampening effect on the economy, America is in recovery. Certainly there are several factors–like a weaker oil price, and the subsequent pickup in consumer demand–that are finally, eight years on from the crisis, driving US growth. But I would argue that these are short-term cyclical trends that can–and will–change. Indeed, consumer confidence and spending continue to be volatile in the wake of the crash. As Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz put it to me in 2015, even in the midst of economic recovery American consumers remain “fragile,” almost as if they have suffered a kind of trauma. Schultz and many other executives believe that skittishness has become a generational imprint, meaning that today’s generation of American consumers, who are still counted on to fuel the world’s growth engine, may be so traumatized they can’t perform that traditional role anymore.
Meanwhile, the deep structural dysfunction in our economy, emanating from the financial system, remains in place. The size of the sector itself is still close to record highs (as measured by its share of overall employment), though that may wax and wane as the impact of digital technology on job growth becomes more pronounced. But what’s clear is that the reorientation of our economy toward finance and the dominance of financial thinking in daily management of nonfinancial firms have warped the way both business and society work. The sway of the markets over the real economy has skewed the playing field and created growing inequality and capture of resources at the top of the socioeconomic pyramid. It has also led to dramatic inefficiencies in resource allocation that may be a cause, rather than a symptom, of slower economic growth.
These aren’t new observations, but rather old warnings that have been pushed aside or forgotten. The great liberal economist John Maynard Keynes, for one, worried that market capitalism might be able to function quite well without actually employing many people, particularly if money went to speculation rather than productive investment. (He called on the government to boost long-term investment through special incentives.) Other thinkers, like Hyman Minsky, Harry Magdoff, and Paul Sweezy, took that idea further, arguing that finance itself creates bubbles and draws money away from the real economy as a matter of course. As Minsky put it, “capitalism is a flawed system in that, if its development is not constrained, it will lead to periodic deep depressions and the perpetuation of poverty.” He also believed that the government would be forced to act as a lender of last resort during such periods, a position that would become untenable as public debt levels rose, leading to more public pressure to allow more speculation, which would unleash renewed instability, and so on. This story of a “symbiotic embrace” between finance and underlying economic malaise, one that the markets can’t stave off forever, finds resonance in the fact that every recovery of the post-World War II period has been longer and weaker than the one before.
What’s new and important now is the growing body of data that supports these ideas. Consider the 2015 paper by BIS senior economist Enisse Kharroubi and Brandeis University professor Stephen Cecchetti, who examined how finance affected growth in fifteen countries. They found productivity–the value that each worker creates in the economy, which, along with demographics, is basically the driver of economic progress–declines in markets with rapidly expanding financial sectors. What’s more, the industries most likely to suffer are those, like advanced manufacturing, that are most critical for long-term growth quicker, more reliable short-term gains (as well as collateral that can be sold in crisis or securitized in boom times). No wonder twin booms in credit and real estate were a defining characteristic of many economies worst hit by the 2008 financial crisis.
Government has a huge role to play in all this. Deregulation from the 1970s onward encouraged banks to move away from their traditional role of enabling investment, and toward embracing speculation. It also paved the way to the so-called shareholder revolution, which enriched investors but pushed corporations into debt and toward short-term decision making. Both trends have redirected capital to less socially useful areas of the economy and created a vicious cycle that’s increasingly difficult to break via the usual methods like monetary policy. Witness the fact that despite the $4.5 trillion the Fed injected into the economy and six years of historically low interest rates, corporations are reinvesting just 1-2 percent of their assets into Main Street. Much of the rest is going straight into the pockets of the richest 10 percent of the population–mostly in the form of rising asset prices–and those people are unlikely to spend as much of it as the middle and working classes would.
That our market system has been corrupted in a way that’s thwarting growth is something Adam Smith himself would have agreed with. His theory of how markets worked evolved at a time when small family-owned firms operated largely on level playing fields with equal access to information. Today financial capitalism is fraught with special interests, corporate monopolies, and an opacity that would have boggled Smith’s mind. Let me be clear: despite my criticism of our existing model of financial capitalism, this book isn’t anticapitalist. I simply don’t think that the system we have now is a properly functioning market system. We have a rentier economy in which a small group of vested interests take the cream off the top, to the detriment of overall growth. I agree with economists like Joseph Stiglitz, George Akerlof, Paul Volcker, and others who believe that markets prudently regulated by governments are the best guarantee of peace and prosperity that the world has ever known. Until we make more progress toward that goal, we won’t have the kind of recovery we deserve.
The High Price of Complexity – The first step in this process is understanding how the financial sector, which is the pivot point for all of this, came to play such an outsize role. Finance isn’t just banking. It includes securities dealers, insurance companies, mutual funds, pension funds, hedge funds, traders, credit derivative product companies, real estate firms, structured investment vehicles, and commercial paper conduits among others. All of them “can fit together like Russian dolls,” as Paul Tucker, the former head of markets for the Bank of England, once put it.
Yet at the heart of all this is the Too Big to Fail banks. The very same one-stop-shop bank model that Weill once heralded as the future of the industry–and of American competitiveness–proved to be its downfall. Yes, customers around the world could do everything at Citi, an institution with assets implicitly underwritten by the US government, thanks to FDIC insurance and Fed protection. But that also meant that financial shocks could migrate quickly through the bank’s interconnected global operations. Not only could problems in Iceland ricochet within seconds to Iowa, but the connections themselves were too complicated even for the bank’s own risk managers, not to mention their leaders, to comprehend in real time. “Do CEOs of large, complex financial institutions today know everything that’s on their balance sheet? It’s not possible to know,” former Goldman Sachs partner and former head of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission Gary Gensler told me in 2014. “There are just too many things going on for their operations now in the markets for them to know.”
That complexity creates tremendous risk. But complexity is also where banks make their money. The financial industry is the world’s ultimate power and information hub, the tiny middle portion of an hourglass that represents the larger global economy. All the money in the world, and all the information about who’s making and taking it, passes through that tiny middle. Financiers sit in what is the most privileged position, extracting whatever rent they like for passage. It’s telling that technology, which usually decreases industries’ operating costs, has failed to deflate the costs of financial intermediation. Indeed, finance has become more costly and less efficient as an industry as it deployed new and more advanced tools over time.
It’s also telling that during the last few decades financiers have earned three times as much as their peers in other industries with similar education and skills. As Thomas Piketty put it in Capital in the Twenty-First Century, financiers are, in some ways, like the landowners of old. Instead of controlling labor, they regulate access to things even more important in the modern economy: capital and information. As a result, they represent the largest single group of the richest and most powerful people on earth. Even more so that Silicon Valley titans or petro-czars, financiers are truly masters of our capitalist universe.”
(THE FOLLOWING IS A QUOTE FROM GILLIAN TETT AND I QUOTE:
“As the next US election looms, one of the most important questions that voters will need to ask is what is wrong with the American economy–and what can be done to fix it. Foroohar’s book is required reading for this. What deft storytelling and clear analysis, she explains how America’s economy has become stealthily “financialized”–and why this process has been so debilitating for American growth, not to mention lives of ordinary people. The 2008 financial crisis was one sign of this; however, the issues have not ended there. Foroohar not only argues that it is crucial that America tackle these woes but offers comonsense solutions for doing so. Politicians–and voters–should take note” —GILLIAN TETT, US managing editor, Financial Times, author of The Silo Effect
MY COMMENTS: AFTER READING CHAPTER ONE, I KNOW I’M GOING TO FOCUS ON CHAPTER 6 AND HOW DEREGULATION CAUSED THE BIG BANKS TO GET IN TROUBLE JUST LIKE SEN BERNIE SANDERS EMPHASIZED WHEN HE WAS RUNNING FOR PRESIDENT. THE COMMENTS ABOUT JOSEPH STIGLITZ SAYING THAT REGULATIONS WORK AND THAT’S SOMETHING THAT I’M HEARING THE REPUBLICAN- CONTROLLED CONGRESS THAT KEEPS DENYING THAT FACT. THEY SAY, LESS REGULATIONS AND LET FREE ENTERPRISE WORK, WHICH IS THE REASON WE GOT INTO THE 2008 BANK BAILOUT UNDER PRESIDENT GEORGE W BUSH.
LaVern Isely, Progressive, Overtaxed, Independent Middle Class Taxpayer and Public Citizen Member and USAF Veteran