Thursday, February 24, 2011

William Black on the Supersized Banks

Here are some bits from an excellent article by William Black from Barry Ritholtz's The Big Picture blog:
What exactly is the function of the financial sector in our society? Simply this: Its sole function is supplying capital efficiently to aid the real economy. The financial sector is a tool to help those that make real tools, not an end in itself. But five fatal flaws in the financial sector’s current structure have created a monster that drains the real economy, promotes fraud and corruption, threatens democracy, and causes recurrent, intensifying crises.

1. The financial sector harms the real economy.

Even when not in crisis, the financial sector harms the real economy. First, it is vastly too large. The finance sector is an intermediary — essentially a “middleman”. Like all middlemen, it should be as small as possible, while still being capable of accomplishing its mission. Otherwise it is inherently parasitical. Unfortunately, it is now vastly larger than necessary, dwarfing the real economy it is supposed to serve. Forty years ago, our real economy grew better with a financial sector that received one-twentieth as large a percentage of total profits (2%) than does the current financial sector (40%). The minimum measure of how much damage the bloated, grossly over-compensated finance sector causes to the real economy is this massive increase in the share of total national income wasted through the finance sector’s parasitism.


2. The financial sector produces recurrent, intensifying economic crises here and abroad.

The current crisis is only the latest in a long list of economic crises caused by the financial sector. When it is not regulated and policed effectively, the financial sector produces and hyper-inflates bubbles that cause severe economic crises. The current crisis, absent massive, global governmental bailouts, would have caused the catastrophic failure of the global economy. The financial sector has become far more unstable since this crisis began and its members used their lobbying power to convince Congress to gimmick the accounting rules to hide their massive losses. Secretary Geithner has exacerbated the problem by declaring that the largest financial institutions are exempt from receivership regardless of their insolvency. These factors greatly increase the likelihood that these systemically dangerous institutions (SDIs) will cause a global financial crisis.

3. The financial sector’s predation is so extraordinary that it now drives the upper one percent of our nation’s income distribution and has driven much of the increase in our grotesque income inequality.

4. The financial sector’s predation and its leading role in committing and aiding and abetting accounting control fraud combine to:

• Corrupt financial elites and professionals, and

• Spur a rise in Social Darwinism in an attempt to justify the elites’ power and wealth. Accounting control frauds suborn accountants, attorneys, and appraisers and create what is known as a “Gresham’s dynamic” — a system in which bad money drives out good. When this dynamic occurs, honest professionals are pushed out and cheaters are allowed to prosper. Executive compensation has become so massive, so divorced from performance, and so perverse that it, too, creates a Gresham’s dynamic that encourages widespread accounting fraud by both financial firms and firms in the real economy.

As financial sector elites became obscenely wealthy through predation and fraud, their psychological incentives to embrace unhealthy, anti-democratic Social Darwinism surged. While they were, by any objective measure, the worst elements of the public, their sycophants in the media and the recipients of their political and charitable contributions worshiped them as heroic. Finance CEOs adopted and spread the myth that they were smarter, harder working, and more innovative than the rest of us. ...

5. The CEOs of the largest financial firms are so powerful that they pose a critical risk to the financial sector, the real economy, and our democracy.

The CEOs can directly, through the firm, and by “bundling” contributions of its officers and employees, easily make enormous political contributions and use their PR firms and lobbyists to manipulate the media and public officials. The ability of the financial sector to block meaningful reform after bringing the world to the brink of a second great depression proves how exceptional its powers are to corrupt nearly every critical sector of American public and economic life. The five largest U.S. banks control roughly half of all bank assets. They use their political and financial power to provide themselves with competitive advantages that allow them to dominate smaller banks.

This excessive power was a major contributor to the ongoing crisis. Effective financial and securities regulation was anathema to the CEOs’ ideology (and the greatest danger to their frauds, wealth, and power) and they successfully set out to destroy it. That produced what criminologists refer to as a “criminogenic environment” (an atmosphere that breeds criminal activity) that prompted the epidemic of accounting control fraud that hyper-inflated the housing bubble. ...


We need to commit to fixing the real economy by guaranteeing that everyone willing to work can work and making the real economy sustainable rather than recurrently causing global environmental crises. We must not spend virtually all of our reform efforts on the finance sector and assume that if we solve its defects we will have solved the other fundamental reasons why the real economy has remained so dysfunctional for decades. We need to be work simultaneously to fix finance and the real economy.
There is more in the original article, go read the whole thing.

The great tragedy of the 2008 election was that a "reformer" was elected who promised "change you can believe in" but he ends up captive to Wall Street and has left the very actors who caused the financial crisis in charge of the economy. Put simply: Wall Street has bought the presidency. Worse, the Republican party is filled with right wing crazies who are worse than the financial parasites of Wall Street. Wall Street would suck the blood out of the economy slowly, the rabid Republicans would drive the economy over a cliff immediately. The American people have been left with a completely dysfunctional political system with no solutions at hand and now white knight on the horizon. It is bleak. Until the electorate awakens to the deep mess the country is in, things will either tread water under Obama and quickly by strangled by the Republicans. Sad.

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