As featured on p. 218 of "Bloggers on the Bus," under the name "a MyDD blogger."

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Too Big, Period.

What will post-recession Wall Street look like? The President talks about a smaller financial sector as a function of a stronger economy.

And so I wonder if you would be willing to describe a little bit of your learning curve about finance, and what you envision finance being in tomorrow’s economy: Does it need to be smaller? Will it inevitably be smaller?

THE PRESIDENT: Well, first of all, I think that we should distinguish between finance as the lifeblood of our economy and finance as a significant industry where we have a comparative advantage — right? So in terms of just growing our economy, we’ve got to have enough credit out there to fund businesses, large and small, to allow consumers the flexibility to make long-term purchases like cars or homes. So that’s not going to change. And I would be concerned if our credit market shrunk in ways that did not allow for the financing of long-term growth.

What that means is not only do we have to have a healthy banking sector, but we’re going to have to figure out what we do with the nonbanking sector that was providing almost half of our credit out there. And we’re going to have to determine whether or not as a consequence of some of the steps that the Fed has been taking, the Treasury has been taking, that we see the market for securitized products restored.

I’m optimistic that ultimately we’re going to be able to get that part of the financial sector going again, but it could take some time to regain confidence and trust.

What I think will change, what I think was an aberration, was a situation where corporate profits in the financial sector were such a heavy part of our overall profitability over the last decade. That I think will change. And so part of that has to do with the effects of regulation that will inhibit some of the massive leveraging and the massive risk-taking that had become so common.

Now, in some ways, I think it’s important to understand that some of that wealth was illusory in the first place.

So we won’t miss it?

THE PRESIDENT: We will miss it in the sense that as a consequence of 25-year-olds getting million-dollar bonuses, they were willing to pay $100 for a steak dinner and that waiter was getting the kinds of tips that would make a college professor envious. And so some of the dynamic of the financial sector will have some trickle-down effects, particularly in a place like Manhattan.

But I actually think that there was always an unsustainable feel about what had happened on Wall Street over the last 10, 15 years, and it’s not that different from the unsustainable nature of what was happening during the dot-com boom, where people in Silicon Valley could make enormous sums of money, even though what they were peddling never really had any signs it would ever make a profit.

That doesn’t mean, though, that Silicon Valley is still not a huge, critical, important part of our economy, and Wall Street will remain a big, important part of our economy, just as it was in the ’70s and the ’80s. It just won’t be half of our economy. And that means that more talent, more resources will be going to other sectors of the economy. And I actually think that’s healthy. We don’t want every single college grad with mathematical aptitude to become a derivatives trader. We want some of them to go into engineering, and we want some of them to be going into computer design.

Rhetorically this is very right, but as I've said the policies being undertaken don't fit the rhetoric at all. They seem far more designed to reinflate the financial sector and allow them no consequence for their bad decisions. Maybe this comes later, with regulatory reform. That certainly seems to be the signal from the President.

Let's try to define the problem and work backwards. Clearly, the growth of finance in terms of salary and proportion of the overall economy has gone completely out of balance. The power of Wall Street financiers provides one reason for this, but so does the newfangled structure of the economy which rewards such behavior.

This wasn’t the first time that something like this had happened. There have been three big banking booms in modern U.S. history. The first began in the late nineteenth century, during the Second Industrial Revolution, when bankers like J. P. Morgan funded the creation of industrial giants like U.S. Steel and International Harvester. The second wave came in the twenties, as electrification transformed manufacturing, and the modern consumer economy took hold. The third wave accompanied the information-technology revolution. Each wave, Philippon shows, was propelled by the need to fund new businesses, and each left finance significantly bigger than before. In all these cases, it wasn’t so much that the bankers had changed; the world had.

The same can’t be said, though, of the boom of the past decade. The housing bubble was unique, and uniquely awful. Each of the previous waves had come in response to a profound shift in the real economy. With the housing bubble, by contrast, there was no meaningful development in the real economy that could explain why homes were suddenly so much more attractive or valuable. The only thing that had changed, really, was that banks were flinging cheap money at would-be homeowners, essentially conjuring up profits out of nowhere. And while previous booms (at least, those of the twenties and the nineties) did end in tears, along the way they made the economy more productive and more innovative in a lasting way. That’s not true of the past decade. Banking grew bigger and more profitable. But all we got in exchange was acres of empty houses in Phoenix.

The giant pool of money, the large chunk of investment capital from around the world, had to park itself somewhere, and suddenly US home sales became the preferred bet. And then mortgage securitization led to a complete rewriting of the rules for who qualified for loans, and you know the rest.

How can we counteract this? Well, making the financial sector operate without the massive amounts of leverage that encourage bad bets would be a start. Suroweicki thinks we can hope for Wall Street to "recognize that its proper role is, as it has been in the past, to follow the real economy, rather than trying to drive it." I just don't find that realistic, given their power and their mindset. And so we need the independent Pecora Commission that will apparently be chaired to have some real power to make real recommendations that would rein in Wall Street and ensure their growth gets stunted. And forgive me for quoting John Ashcroft, but we need some real accountability and charges filed against any companies that may have broken the law. Interestingly, Ashcroft doesn't believe in the same kind of accountability for torture.

The government must hold accountable any individuals who acted illegally in this financial meltdown, while preserving the viability of the companies that received bailout funds or stimulus money. Certainly, we should demand justice. But we must all remember that justice is a value, the adherence to which includes seeking the best outcome for the American people. In some cases it will be the punishing of bad actors. In other cases it may involve heavy corporate fines or operating under a carefully tailored agreement.

(Do you think the editorial page editors of the Times openly snickered when they accepted this op-ed, and were all too happy to give Ashcroft the rope to hang himself?)

Banks need to understand their core function of providing the swift flow of capital, not to create wealth markets for themselves. That can be achieved through responsible regulation.

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