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

Friday, July 17, 2009

Still Masters Of The Universe

What we're seeing from the big bank earnings reports is that the government reacted to a situation where the financial industry titans were too big to fail, and facilitated theconsolidation of them so that they grew even bigger. Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan Chase are the biggest of the lot, having seen their competition either eliminated or weakened.

“One theme here is that Goldman Sachs and JPMorgan really have emerged as the winners, as the last of the survivors,” said Robert Reich, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, who was secretary of labor in the Clinton administration.

Both banks now stand astride post-bailout Wall Street, having benefited from billions of dollars in taxpayer support and cheap government financing to climb over banks that continue to struggle. They are capitalizing on the turmoil in financial markets and their rivals’ weakness to pull in billions in trading profits.

Even Bank of America and Citigroup posted big profits in the last quarter, although the elimination of mark-to-market accounting plays a major role in hiding the true weakness of a lot of these banks. The imminent failure of more community banks and larger firms like CIT present opportunities for JP Morgan and Goldman Sachs as well.

Paul Krugman gets shrill on Goldman Sachs today, and he makes the larger point that we have only made Wall Street more dangerous to the overall economy through no-strings bailouts and failing to rein in the excess.

Over the past generation — ever since the banking deregulation of the Reagan years — the U.S. economy has been “financialized.” The business of moving money around, of slicing, dicing and repackaging financial claims, has soared in importance compared with the actual production of useful stuff. The sector officially labeled “securities, commodity contracts and investments” has grown especially fast, from only 0.3 percent of G.D.P. in the late 1970s to 1.7 percent of G.D.P. in 2007.

Such growth would be fine if financialization really delivered on its promises — if financial firms made money by directing capital to its most productive uses, by developing innovative ways to spread and reduce risk. But can anyone, at this point, make those claims with a straight face? Financial firms, we now know, directed vast quantities of capital into the construction of unsellable houses and empty shopping malls. They increased risk rather than reducing it, and concentrated risk rather than spreading it. In effect, the industry was selling dangerous patent medicine to gullible consumers [...]

The huge bonuses Goldman will soon hand out show that financial-industry highfliers are still operating under a system of heads they win, tails other people lose. If you’re a banker, and you generate big short-term profits, you get lavishly rewarded — and you don’t have to give the money back if and when those profits turn out to have been a mirage. You have every reason, then, to steer investors into taking risks they don’t understand.

And the events of the past year have skewed those incentives even more, by putting taxpayers as well as investors on the hook if things go wrong.

Basically, Krugman hinges the success of the bailout on meaningful financial regulation to keep Wall Street from making the same gambles. I'm not hopeful about that. But what I am hopeful about is the recognition, from across the political spectrum, that the bailout has produced perverse incentives that need to be reversed in whatever way possible.

The (Wall Street) Journal's take -- "We like profits as much as the next capitalist. But when those profits are supported by government guarantees or insured deposits, taxpayers have a special interest in how the companies conduct their business" -- is actually more in keeping with that of Robert Reich, who says that "Goldman's resurgence should send shivers down the backs of every hardworking American who has lost a large chunk of retirement savings in this economic debacle, as well as the millions who have lost their jobs.... Goldman's high-risk business model hasn't changed one bit from what it was before the implosion of Wall Street." [...]

There is much in the Wall Street Journal that I don't agree with but, when it comes to the failure of the administration to address and fundamentally reform what Kessler calls "the structural problems that got us into trouble in the first place," we are of the same mind. There is no daylight between a progressive position focused on the paramount need to get the real economy going and one based purely on what makes free markets work.

The editorial goes so far as to suggest imposing a tax (yes, the Wall Street Journal is proposing a tax!), an FDIC-style bailout tax to be precise, "for those in the too-big-to-fail camp."

Even Reagan-era economist Bruce Bartlett is arguing for higher taxes, albeit regressive ones. I actually think the proper context is in terms of the health care debate. Goldman Sachs and other Wall Street firms took advantage of a financial crisis to redistribute wealth upwards. To pay for health care for the indigent, we should unwind that redistribution, perhaps with Charlie Rangel's surtax that adds brackets at the high end. It is impossible for conservatives to argue against redistribution of wealth with a straight face, given the example of Goldman Sachs.

...Simon Johnson:

We are looking at a concentration of political power in the US banking system that we haven’t seen since the 1830s: Shades of Andrew Jackson vs. the Second Bank of the United States. We put up with a lot from our banking elite in this country, but historically we draw the line at financial power so concentrated it can confront the power of the President.

The logic for reform and for breaking up the big banks begins to build. Bank of America’s fall was, in some senses, a fortunate accident for Goldman and JP Morgan. But it has also given them an excessive and unsustainable degree of political power.

Of course, you also have to ask: Who can break that power, when, and how?

...This is a dangerous time, politically. 80% of the public believe that Wall Street benefited from the bailouts, and not taxpayers. That's an unsurprising result. The question is how the public reacts. We could see a right-wing populism take shape if the teabaggers ever get their act together, or a New Deal coalition reformed. I talked to a writer last night who said he felt like he was living through history, as the Depression-era battle lines are being drawn. We don't know who will win yet, but it doesn't look good from where I sit.

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