Saturday, March 13, 2010

Indefensible Men

Yves Smith reprints this article from The Baffler:
Since inequalities of privilege are greater than could possibly be defended rationally, the intelligence of privileged groups is usually applied to the task of inventing specious proofs for the theory that universal values spring from, and that general interests are served by, the special privileges which they hold.

— Reinhold Niebuhr, Moral Man and Immoral Society

A year on from its brush with Armageddon, the financial services industry has resumed its reckless, self-serving ways It isn’t hard to see why this has aroused simmering rage in normally complacent, pro-capitalist Main Street America. The budget commitments to salvaging the financial sector come to nearly $3 trillion, equivalent to more than $20,000 per federal income tax payer. To add insult to injury, the miscreants have also availed themselves of more welfare programs in the form of lending facilities and guarantees, totaling nearly $12 trillion, not all of which will prove to be money well spent.

Wall Street just looted the public on a massive scale. Having found this to be a wondrously lucrative exercise, it looks set to do it all over again.

These people above all were supposed to understand money, the value of it, the risks attendant with it. The industry broadly defined, even including once lowly commercial bank employees, profited handsomely as the debt bubble grew. Compensation per worker in the early 1980s was similar to that of all non-government employees. It started accelerating in 1983, and hit 181 percent of the level of private sector pay by 2007. The rewards at the top were rich indeed. The average employee at Goldman Sachs made $630,000 in 2007. That includes everyone, the receptionists, the guys in the mail room, the back office staff. Eight-figure bonuses for big producers became standard in the last cycle. And if the fourth quarter of 2009 proves as lucrative as the first three, Goldman’s bonuses for the year will exceed bubble-peak levels. ...

Finance has lost sight of its role.

Banking and capital markets have become important to advanced economies, but also they represent a charge on the productive economy, just like lawyers and national defense. Ironically, the Japanese understood this well, and were still unable to prevent a turbo charged borrowing binge that left their economy a mess. They recognized that letting banks be very profitable comes at the expense of industry. And indeed, until the global financial crisis, while Japan’s domestic economy remained mired in deflation, its export sector was still robust. When our crisis broke out, Japanese policy makers were uncharacteristically blunt and warned the US that the mistake they had made was not cleaning up their banking sector quickly. We are repeating their error for the very same reason: financial firms have great political clout.

Or, as John Maynard Keynes put it, “When the capital development of a country becomes a by-product of the activities of a casino, the job is likely to be ill done.”

Yet the people at the heart of this system, even with the wreckage they created all around them, still fail to acknowledge that the rich pay of recent years was the product of a debt binge. It wasn’t just the makers of the pernicious securities who benefited; all boats in the finance industry rose with the surge of borrowing. Trying to defend the status quo ante shows a willful, self-serving blindness to the proper place of financial markets in a healthy economy.

Worse, it bespeaks a dangerous, destructive ideology that has somehow managed to live on, zombie-like, through the crisis. The idea that the needs of the financial sector trump those of the productive sector isn’t just specious; as the crisis so vividly demonstrated, it’s outright dangerous. But its strange persistence as an article of faith among our leadership class, both in government and the media, has yielded inertia and fecklessness where there should be energy and resolve. It seems that before we can confront the challenge of mending our broken financial system, a battle of ideology must be waged and won. And the hour is getting late.

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