Monday, April 6, 2009

Wall Street Rules the Government

Simon Johnson's essay in The Atlantic shows how the US is no better than a banana republic.
In its depth and suddenness, the U.S. economic and financial crisis is shockingly reminiscent of moments we have recently seen in emerging markets (and only in emerging markets): South Korea (1997), Malaysia (1998), Russia and Argentina (time and again). In each of those cases, global investors, afraid that the country or its financial sector wouldn’t be able to pay off mountainous debt, suddenly stopped lending. And in each case, that fear became self-fulfilling, as banks that couldn’t roll over their debt did, in fact, become unable to pay. This is precisely what drove Lehman Brothers into bankruptcy on September 15, causing all sources of funding to the U.S. financial sector to dry up overnight. Just as in emerging-market crises, the weakness in the banking system has quickly rippled out into the rest of the economy, causing a severe economic contraction and hardship for millions of people.

But there’s a deeper and more disturbing similarity: elite business interests— financiers, in the case of the U.S.— played a central role in creating the crisis, making ever-larger gambles, with the implicit backing of the government, until the inevitable collapse. More alarming, they are now using their influence to prevent precisely the sorts of reforms that are needed, and fast, to pull the economy out of its nosedive. The government seems helpless, or unwilling, to act against them.

Top investment bankers and government officials like to lay the blame for the current crisis on the lowering of U.S. interest rates after the dotcom bust or, even better—in a “buck stops somewhere else” sort of way—on the flow of savings out of China. Some on the right like to complain about Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac, or even about longer-standing efforts to promote broader homeownership. And, of course, it is axiomatic to everyone that the regulators responsible for “safety and soundness” were fast asleep at the wheel.

But these various policies— lightweight regulation, cheap money, the unwritten Chinese-American economic alliance, the promotion of homeownership— had something in common. Even though some are traditionally associated with Democrats and some with Republicans, they all benefited the financial sector. Policy changes that might have forestalled the crisis but would have limited the financial sector’s profits—such as Brooksley Born’s now-famous attempts to regulate credit-default swaps at the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, in 1998—were ignored or swept aside.

The financial industry has not always enjoyed such favored treatment. But for the past 25 years or so, finance has boomed, becoming ever more powerful. The boom began with the Reagan years, and it only gained strength with the deregulatory policies of the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations. (snip)

The great wealth that the financial sector created and concentrated gave bankers enormous political weight—a weight not seen in the U.S. since the era of J.P. Morgan (the man). In that period, the banking panic of 1907 could be stopped only by coordination among private-sector bankers: no government entity was able to offer an effective response. But that first age of banking oligarchs came to an end with the passage of significant banking regulation in response to the Great Depression; the reemergence of an American financial oligarchy is quite recent.

The Wall Street–Washington Corridor

Of course, the U.S. is unique. And just as we have the world’s most advanced economy, military, and technology, we also have its most advanced oligarchy.

In a primitive political system, power is transmitted through violence, or the threat of violence: military coups, private militias, and so on. In a less primitive system more typical of emerging markets, power is transmitted via money: bribes, kickbacks, and offshore bank accounts. Although lobbying and campaign contributions certainly play major roles in the American political system, old-fashioned corruption— envelopes stuffed with $100 bills— is probably a sideshow today, Jack Abramoff notwithstanding.

Instead, the American financial industry gained political power by amassing a kind of cultural capital— a belief system. Once, perhaps, what was good for General Motors was good for the country. Over the past decade, the attitude took hold that what was good for Wall Street was good for the country. The banking-and-securities industry has become one of the top contributors to political campaigns, but at the peak of its influence, it did not have to buy favors the way, for example, the tobacco companies or military contractors might have to. Instead, it benefited from the fact that Washington insiders already believed that large financial institutions and free-flowing capital markets were crucial to America’s position in the world.

One channel of influence was, of course, the flow of individuals between Wall Street and Washington. Robert Rubin, once the co-chairman of Goldman Sachs, served in Washington as Treasury secretary under Clinton, and later became chairman of Citigroup’s executive committee. Henry Paulson, CEO of Goldman Sachs during the long boom, became Treasury secretary under George W.Bush. John Snow, Paulson’s predecessor, left to become chairman of Cerberus Capital Management, a large private-equity firm that also counts Dan Quayle among its executives. Alan Greenspan, after leaving the Federal Reserve, became a consultant to Pimco, perhaps the biggest player in international bond markets.


Wall Street is a very seductive place, imbued with an air of power. Its executives truly believe that they control the levers that make the world go round. (snip)

A whole generation of policy makers has been mesmerized by Wall Street, always and utterly convinced that whatever the banks said was true. Alan Greenspan’s pronouncements in favor of unregulated financial markets are well known. Yet Greenspan was hardly alone. This is what Ben Bernanke, the man who succeeded him, said in 2006: “The management of market risk and credit risk has become increasingly sophisticated. … Banking organizations of all sizes have made substantial strides over the past two decades in their ability to measure and manage risks.”

Of course, this was mostly an illusion. Regulators, legislators, and academics almost all assumed that the managers of these banks knew what they were doing. In retrospect, they didn’t. AIG’s Financial Products division, for instance, made $2.5 billion in pretax profits in 2005, largely by selling underpriced insurance on complex, poorly understood securities. Often described as “picking up nickels in front of a steamroller,” this strategy is profitable in ordinary years, and catastrophic in bad ones. As of last fall, AIG had outstanding insurance on more than $400 billion in securities. To date, the U.S. government, in an effort to rescue the company, has committed about $180 billion in investments and loans to cover losses that AIG’s sophisticated risk modeling had said were virtually impossible.

In a society that celebrates the idea of making money, it was easy to infer that the interests of the financial sector were the same as the interests of the country— and that the winners in the financial sector knew better what was good for America than did the career civil servants in Washington. Faith in free financial markets grew into conventional wisdom— trumpeted on the editorial pages of The Wall Street Journal and on the floor of Congress.

From this confluence of campaign finance, personal connections, and ideology there flowed, in just the past decade, a river of deregulatory policies that is, in hindsight, astonishing:

• insistence on free movement of capital across borders;

• the repeal of Depression-era regulations separating commercial and investment banking;

• a congressional ban on the regulation of credit-default swaps;

• major increases in the amount of leverage allowed to investment banks;

• a light (dare I say invisible?) hand at the Securities and Exchange Commission in its regulatory enforcement;

• an international agreement to allow banks to measure their own riskiness;

• and an intentional failure to update regulations so as to keep up with the tremendous pace of financial innovation.

The mood that accompanied these measures in Washington seemed to swing between nonchalance and outright celebration: finance unleashed, it was thought, would continue to propel the economy to greater heights.

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