When the bucks stop

The current financial crisis highlights fundamental failings in a global economy run for private profit rather than broader social opportunity. Jim Stanford explains how risky financial speculation created a bubble that has now burst, and argues that we need to refocus attention on a real economy founded on the production of actual goods and services

July 5, 2008 · 17 min read

For the past year, the world’s financial system has been roiled by a cascading crisis of confidence. The consequences so far have included collapsed banks and brokerages, some $250 billion of officially declared losses by financial companies, a marked slowdown of real economic growth in several countries, and a recession in the US. More ominously, there may be a darker storm coming. Many observers, defenders of the current system as well as critics, fear this latest panic might just lead to ‘the big one’ – a structural conflagration that produces depression, chaos and dramatic change.

I’m sceptical of this judgment and don’t think we should get carried away with doomsday prophesying. The global financial system has survived at least six major crises since the advent of neoliberalism in the late 1970s (see Red Pepper magazine June/July issue, page 30). Each time the system manages to rebound and regroup – ever more unequal, unbalanced and distorted, but still viable nonetheless.

Even so, the current crisis is not remotely over, and could get much worse before it gets better. The events of the past year have proved that the financial system is both structurally unstable and impossibly unpredictable. So whether it causes larger and more disastrous problems or not, the current crisis is a fitting opportunity to challenge the effectiveness and credibility of the whole neoliberal project – not just its financial and monetary policies, but the way it runs the real economy too.

What happened?

The financial crisis of 2007-08 has its roots in the collapse of a speculative bubble in the US housing market. Average US home prices almost tripled between 1996 and 2006, driven skyward by low interest rates, tax subsidies and speculation. As with any speculative bubble, once the price for an asset starts rising strongly, other investors buy it solely to profit from that rising price.

A bizarre American phenomenon called ‘sub-prime lending’ added fuel to this fire. Sub-prime mortgages are issued to lower-income home purchasers, who might not qualify for a regular mortgage. Lenders offered mortgages at low introductory rates, luring buyers to stretch beyond their financial means. Few understood that rates would increase dramatically in later years.

Every bubble must inevitably burst – and this one eventually did, too. The immediate cause is some event that ‘pricks’ the optimism of speculative investors, turning greed to fear and causing them to rush for the exits. In this case, the downturn started with rising foreclosures, combined with increases in US interest rates. Amidst the subsequent financial carnage, the immediate victims of the debacle are the two million mostly low-income families who lost their homes in one of the largest forced evictions in history.

Shock waves from the downturn were amplified by highly sophisticated new financial practices that first arose in the 1980s and 1990s. Gone are the days when home mortgages were issued by some mundane neighbourhood institution (a bank, credit union or building society) with good local knowledge of housing markets. Clever financial engineers developed creative, often bizarre ways to convert mortgage lending into a sexier, more lucrative arena. Mortgages (and other forms of routine consumer debt) were ‘securitised’. Instead of existing solely as a promise by a homebuyer to pay back the money, a mortgage became a piece of paper that can itself be sold and re-sold for speculative profit on financial markets. Ever more exotic securities, even further removed from the actual home that a real person lives in, were invented – like ‘credit default swaps’ and other hard-to-pronounce derivatives. But the tail came to wag the dog; these new securities are now gigantic speculative markets of their own, worth far more than all the residential homes in the land.

Individual investors, pension funds, and even government agencies around the world invested in the trendy new products. They hoped for high returns on what they thought were secure assets; many had little idea what they were buying. So when the value of sub-prime mortgage securities began to collapse, investors around the world felt the pain.

Speculators tend to leverage their investments heavily (using borrowed money to place their bets). This, combined with sudden uncertainty regarding the value of many securities, created a crisis of trust and confidence that spread through the financial system. Banks would no longer lend to

each other, hedge funds were no longer allowed to trade on credit and brokers experienced sudden cash shortages. Eventually, banks and other institutions wrote off large amounts of securitised mortgages as worthless, and some companies collapsed entirely – like Bear Stearns, a major US brokerage, and Britain’s Northern Rock (temporarily nationalised, ironically by a fervently pro-market Labour government). The broad deregulation of private finance under neoliberalism contributed to this extraordinary fragility.

Another painful side effect of the crisis has been a contraction in private credit creation. When private banks issue new loans, the money supply grows and spending increases; this credit-creating function is essential to economic growth and job creation. But being private profit-seeking companies, banks run this system in accordance with their own interests – not society’s broader need for growth and opportunity. When bankers are confident loans will be repaid, they aggressively push credit into the economy. When they are fearful of defaults, they withold credit – even from reliable customers. This is called a ‘credit squeeze’. When bankers are reluctant to issue new loans because of uncertainty and fear, even deep cuts in interest rates may have little impact on stimulating borrowing and hence spending. The whole economy, at this point, is hostage to the self- protective reticence of private bankers.

The broader breakdown of trust and confidence, and resulting squeeze in credit creation, poses the greatest danger. And this is what central banks around the world have been trying to prevent. Led by the US Federal Reserve (still, ironically, the most pro-active, interventionist and in some way ‘Keynesian’ of all), they have injected hundreds of billions of dollars in short-term loans (or ‘liquidity’) into the banking system. This allows hard-pressed banks to continue regular borrowing and lending.

We should remember that the ups and downs of the ‘paper economy’ (the financial sector, which trades in paper assets but doesn’t produce direct, real value) do not always affect the ‘real economy’ (where working people

produce things – goods and services – that are actually useful). This disconnect is obvious when the paper economy is booming: record stock markets and financial valuations don’t at all translate into jobs or incomes for

the rest of us.

The disconnect is also apparent when the paper economy turns down: the disappearance of even trillions of dollars of ethereal paper value does not necessarily translate into genuine bad news for those of us who make our living through work, rather than wealth. But sudden shocks in financial confidence, and the disappearance of paper wealth, can have indirect negative impacts on the real economy. The transmission of the financial crisis into the real economy (through channels such as the decline in US home construction, or a decline in spending by consumers – perhaps because they’ve been shell-shocked by gloomy financial headlines) can convert a paper crisis into a real depression.

At the time of writing, international financial officials were worried both about further financial panic and the growing impact of the sub-prime crisis on the real global economy. IMF officials estimated that total bank and brokerage losses would exceed $1 trillion by the time the crisis runs its course. Only one-quarter of this total has been declared so far by global banks and brokerages, so there’s a lot more pain to come. The IMF also downgraded its estimate for world economic growth – although no major economy, other than the US, is currently expected to experience a recession.

The profit motive and private finance

Fingers have been pointed at unethical US mortgage brokers (for issuing mortgages to families that could not afford them), lazy credit rating agencies (for failing to identify the risks associated with securitised mortgages) and greedy hedge fund investors (for placing risky bets with other people’s money rather than their own). All these practices contributed to the unfolding of this specific crisis. But this crisis, like those that came before it, is rooted in a deeper and more fundamental problem: namely, a financial system oriented toward maximising the private profit and wealth of investors, rather than facilitating and lubricating real economic progress for the rest of us. There are several factors underlying this:

  • Speculation

    Investors try to make money off their wealth, following the ancient credo: ‘Buy low and sell high.’ This speculative impulse is non-productive: it adds nothing to the output of real goods and services. And it introduces an inherent boom-and-bust instability into financial markets and (to a lesser extent) into the real economy as well.

  • The banking cycle

    Private banks issue new loans to customers based solely on the willingness of the customer to undertake the loan (at the going interest rate) and the bank’s judgment that the loan will be repaid. An essential economic and social function – credit creation – has been outsourced, with very little social oversight, to private companies interested solely in their own profit. When the cost-benefit calculations of private banks diverge from those of society as a whole (as they very often do), the economy is left with too much credit, too little credit, or (in times of severe crisis) no credit at all.

  • Competition

    Competitive pressures force banks and brokerages, even those wary of the risks involved, to push the envelope with their decisions – including issuing loans to risky customers, and speculating on riskier derivatives. Competition thus enforces the blind herd mentality that accentuates both the ups and the downs of private finance.

  • Innovation

    Capitalism is nothing if not creative, and the financial industry has lured some of humanity’s smartest minds to focus on the utterly unproductive task of developing new pieces of financial paper, and new ways of buying and selling them. Despite the finger pointing at mortgage brokers and credit rates, therefore, the current meltdown is rooted squarely in the innovative but blinding greed that is the raison d’être of private finance.

  • Multiple failure

    The fundamental logic of for-profit finance provides the left with a platform to make a profound critique of that system, since the current crisis highlights many of its failings:

  • A failure of financial stability

    Outrage among the wealth-owning set at the losses incurred in the 1970s (due to rising inflation and falling stock markets) was a crucial ingredient for the rise of neoliberalism later in that decade. Stabilising the financial system, and protecting investment returns, has been its central goal ever since. But the new financial order is clearly just as prone to massive instability and losses (this time self-inflicted) as it ever was during the bad old Keynesian days.

  • A failure of monetary policy

    Until very recently, it was fashionable to speak of a universal ‘new consensus’ in monetary policy, based on inflation targets and central bank ‘independence’. Modern central bankers seemed to have solved the age-old problem of balancing inflation and unemployment, but this claim turned out to be overstated and ridiculously premature. Yes, inflation in basic consumer prices was controlled, for a while (with the help of Chinese-made products, falling labour costs, and other time-limited changes). But inflation in asset prices remained rampant. Even by traditional measures, neoliberal monetary policy is showing cracks: in the US, for example, inflation is now accelerating notably, even as the economy enters recession – exactly as occurred in the 1970s.

  • A failure of real capital accumulation

    Today’s financial instability is caused, in part, by too much paper capital chasing too little real capital. Despite strong profitability, the investment performance of real business under neoliberalism has been downright sluggish. Net investment in real capital (after depreciation) in the major G7 economies has averaged only about 6 per cent of GDP over the past decade – less than half as much as during the supposedly troubled 1970s. Moreover, real (non-financial) companies around the world are generating far more cash flow than they reinvest. The result is an unprecedented accumulation of financial wealth by non-financial corporations that only adds to the financial overhang. Deliberate neoliberal constraints on real growth have thus been an important underlying cause of current financial instability.

  • A failure of public finance

    Even one of the most vaunted ‘successes’ of the neoliberal era – the elimination of chronic government deficits and the reduction of public debt – has been thrown into question by the sub-prime meltdown. Never mind that the socialisation of Northern Rock’s debts did more damage to the UK’s debt burden than a decade of social spending (pushing the state’s debt load above 40 per cent of GDP for the first time since Labour took office in 1997). It turns out that the reduction of government debt under neoliberal cutbacks actually contributed to financial instability.

    There is no more secure asset than a government bond. But the supply of government bonds declined as government spending was cut and debts reduced. This encouraged (and even forced) investors and institutions

    to take on riskier assets. Maintaining a ‘healthy’ stockpile of public debt can actually stabilise the financial system.

    For these and other reasons, the current crisis is not merely the result of a pointlessly hyperactive, fragile and unregulated financial system. It reflects a deeper failure of the whole neoliberal program to establish the conditions for productive, effective economic progress.

    Fixing the mess

    Global central bankers have been spurred into genuine action by the sheer scale of the present crisis. Led by the Americans, they waded forcefully into the fray – tossing around many tens of billions of dollars of liquidity, bailing out failed brokers and nationalising major banks. These actions were prudent, helping to avoid (for now, anyway) a much wider conflagration. The left, however, should demand public accountability from the private institutions that are now receiving an expensive public rescue. And we should expose the stark contrast between the spirit of interventionism that motivates these efforts, and the general ‘hands-off’ mentality that typifies neoliberal responses to other, equally urgent problems (such as substandard housing, preventable disease or environmental degradation).

    Calming the current storm is one thing, trying to prevent the next one is another. International financial officials have made very tentative, modest statements about reforming financial regulations to prevent similar abuses and excesses in the future (such as recent agreements by the G7 finance ministers and the Basel committee on banking supervision to very modestly

    strengthen capital adequacy rules and other bank regulations).

    The emphasis in these proposals is on oversight and transparency, not genuine regulation. They wouldn’t significantly alter the hyper-risky behaviour that produced the current meltdown; they would just shine a little more light on it. They wouldn’t prevent future financial bubbles – but they might allow a bit more of the blame to be shifted to the victims (who, in a more transparent world, should have known what they were getting into). And financial interests are already mobilising to fight even these timid steps toward re- regulation.

    Genuinely preventing future chaos will require a far more thorough-going overhaul of private finance – guided by a critical understanding of the destructive and irrational incentives created by a deregulated, for-profit financial system. Here are the key areas that should be emphasised:

    Regulation The most exploitative and dangerous financial practices should be tightly regulated, and in many cases simply prohibited. Regulations should prohibit unethical lending behaviour, curtailing manipulative practices like those that drove the US sub-prime debacle. They should also impose genuine capitalisation and reserve requirements; these would force banks and other institutions that issue financial securities to keep a significant reserve cushion (consisting of real money or government bonds, not high-risk securities) on account with public regulators to guard against financial panics and collapse.

    Public guarantee system When investors panic, that panic itself becomes the problem. This is why a strong public guarantee system, protecting at least the core of the financial system (routine consumer and business lending, and non-speculative personal investments up to some ‘middle-class’ threshold) is an essential precondition for financial stability. If savers and investors know their funds are backed up by state guarantees, they have no reason to rush to withdraw their funds when panic strikes.

    Socialising credit creation At the end of the day, the risks associated with private finance will always be socialised (as they have been in the current crisis) simply because the costs of major financial failures are too severe, and too widely distributed, to tolerate. So why don’t we socialise the whole process, or at least part of it? In particular, finding more stable and publicly- accountable ways to organise the mundane credit- creation process that is an essential lubricant for real economic progress, but without recourse to the gigantic, expensive paper casino that currently meddles in this function, would be a logical response to the spectacular failure of private finance. In this view, bread-and-butter lending (to homebuyers, consumers and real businesses) is like a ‘public good’: something we all depend on, but can’t trust the private market reliably to supply. Developing public or non-profit vehicles to perform this function – including publicly-owned banks, credit unions, building and mutual societies and other non-profit vehicles – is thus a credible and timely demand.

    Addressing the real downturn As financial panic undermines conditions in the real economy (as has already occurred in the US), governments must step in quickly with powerful measures to offset spending weakness and support jobs. The Bush government’s ‘stimulus’ package consists almost entirely of tax cuts (surprise, surprise) which will have little impact on immediate spending and production. Lower interest rates, too, have little stimulative power during a private credit squeeze. This situation calls for good old-fashioned direct spending and job creation by government and its agencies: pumping new demand into the economy through infrastructure projects and public services. If this requires deficit spending, then all the better: the resulting flow of new government bonds will give panicked

    investors a genuinely safe harbour during the current financial storm.

    Prioritising real investment Today we can make a strong argument to shift the entire focus of economic policy away from the financial sphere, and back toward the real economy – where we produce concrete goods and services that actually contribute to our collective prosperity. This overarching theme can be reflected in everything from tax proposals (finding ways to mobilise more capital in real investment projects, both public and private), to monetary policy (emphasising a steady, sustainable supply of credit, rather than phoney inflation targets), to labour market policy (supplying capable and motivated workers for the jobs our macroeconomic strategy will create). Our argument is strengthened by the failure of the neoliberal model to achieve its supposed core objective. Despite vibrant profits, despite financial deregulation and sophistication, despite globalisation, real capitalist businesses invest a shrinking share of their record profits in real capital investments – and our

    economies are performing sluggishly as a result. This failure is a gigantic chink in the ideological armour of neoliberalism, which we should exploit to the fullest.

    I do not subscribe to the ‘worse-is-better’ school of social change. I hope fervently that the current financial crisis does not spread because it will leave in its wake massive job losses, evictions and poverty, affecting many

    millions of people who can least afford them. But I also believe this is a moment when socialists can advance a very fundamental critique of the failure of neoliberalism: not just its high-flying financial incarnation, but the very essence of its economic project. The needless, dramatic crisis afflicting the global financial system proves that the neoliberal project has gone badly wrong. And we can be thinking very big thoughts indeed about how to change and ultimately replace it.

    Jim Stanford is an economist with the Canadian Auto Workers Union in Toronto, Canada, and author of Economics for Everyone, a ‘textbook’ for activists recently published by Pluto Press

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