Onslaught on the “financial oligarchy” from an unexpected corner

April 19, 2009

Who said IMF economists were bad guys serving the interests of financial globalization?

Simon Johnson, former IMF Chief Economist, is coming out in May’s edition of The Atlantic with a fascinating, highly provocative piece, on the collusion between the US’ “financial oligarchy” and the US government and how its persistence will contribute to prolonging the economic crisis. A long, but highly recommendable read. A few morceaux choisis:

One thing you learn rather quickly when working at the International Monetary Fund is that no one is ever very happy to see you (…)

The reason, of course, is that the IMF specializes in telling its clients what they don’t want to hear.(…)

No, the real concern of the fund’s senior staff, and the biggest obstacle to recovery, is almost invariably the politics of countries in crisis. (…)

Typically, these countries are in a desperate economic situation for one simple reason—the powerful elites within them overreached in good times and took too many risks. Emerging-market governments and their private-sector allies commonly form a tight-knit—and, most of the time, genteel—oligarchy, running the country rather like a profit-seeking company in which they are the controlling shareholders (…)

Many IMF programs “go off track” (a euphemism) precisely because the government can’t stay tough on erstwhile cronies, and the consequences are massive inflation or other disasters. A program “goes back on track” once the government prevails or powerful oligarchs sort out among themselves who will govern—and thus win or lose—under the IMF-supported plan. (…)

In its depth and suddenness, the U.S. economic and financial crisis is shockingly reminiscent of moments we have recently seen in emerging markets (…).

(…) 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.

(…) 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. (…)

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.

A whole generation of policy makers has been mesmerized by Wall Street, always and utterly convinced that whatever the banks said was true (…).

By now, the princes of the financial world have of course been stripped naked as leaders and strategists—at least in the eyes of most Americans. But as the months have rolled by, financial elites have continued to assume that their position as the economy’s favored children is safe, despite the wreckage they have caused (…)

Throughout the crisis, the government has taken extreme care not to upset the interests of the financial institutions, or to question the basic outlines of the system that got us here. In September 2008, Henry Paulson asked Congress for $700 billion to buy toxic assets from banks, with no strings attached and no judicial review of his purchase decisions. Many observers suspected that the purpose was to overpay for those assets and thereby take the problem off the banks’ hands—indeed, that is the only way that buying toxic assets would have helped anything. Perhaps because there was no way to make such a blatant subsidy politically acceptable, that plan was shelved.

Instead, the money was used to recapitalize banks, buying shares in them on terms that were grossly favorable to the banks themselves. As the crisis has deepened and financial institutions have needed more help, the government has gotten more and more creative in figuring out ways to provide banks with subsidies that are too complex for the general public to understand (…)

The challenges the United States faces are familiar territory to the people at the IMF. If you hid the name of the country and just showed them the numbers, there is no doubt what old IMF hands would say: nationalize troubled banks and break them up as necessary (…)

In some ways, of course, the government has already taken control of the banking system. It has essentially guaranteed the liabilities of the biggest banks, and it is their only plausible source of capital today.

Ideally, big banks should be sold in medium-size pieces, divided regionally or by type of business. Where this proves impractical—since we’ll want to sell the banks quickly—they could be sold whole, but with the requirement of being broken up within a short time. Banks that remain in private hands should also be subject to size limitations.

This may seem like a crude and arbitrary step, but it is the best way to limit the power of individual institutions in a sector that is essential to the economy as a whole. Of course, some people will complain about the “efficiency costs” of a more fragmented banking system, and these costs are real. But so are the costs when a bank that is too big to fail—a financial weapon of mass self-destruction—explodes. Anything that is too big to fail is too big to exist.

To ensure systematic bank breakup, and to prevent the eventual reemergence of dangerous behemoths, we also need to overhaul our antitrust legislation (…)

Caps on executive compensation, while redolent of populism, might help restore the political balance of power and deter the emergence of a new oligarchy. (…)

(…) Over time, though, the largest part may involve more transparency and competition, which would bring financial-industry fees down. To those who say this would drive financial activities to other countries, we can now safely say: fine”.

The Gramscian tones coming out of this piece certainly reveal the scale of the ideological crisis, and potentially, shift, occurring right now as the economic crisis unfolds. I tend to think Johnson’s views have a few weaknesses:

The first is an apparently not completely thought-through assessment of a government’s capacity to take control of an entire financial system, and to clean, slice it up and re-privatize it impartially. The risks of more governmental control are precisely what he is denouncing in his entire piece: growing, potentially corrupt, collusion between business elites and government officials.

Second weakness is that he thinks, quite optimistically, that it will be easy to replace current bank managements.  As Daron Acemoglu pointed out recently, we are in a situation of skill scarcity in financial markets. Any attempt to fix the financial system will have to involve those same bankers that created the mess in the first place. To push the analogy a bit strongly, Germany post 1945 and Iraq post 2003 still needed to work with some civil servants in the judicial and educational system that worked for the previous system, or with tainted industrialists. An unfortunate situation, but US liberators/occupiers couldn’t really help it.

In theory, the best way to dimimish the power of financiers is to let them fail and crash badly. Their clout and credibility will diminish accordingly. In practice it’s difficult to let this crash happen, given the stakes at hand – credit, mortgages, pensions, etc. Yet if the recent wave of globalisation has put a premium on returns to the financial sector, it might well be that the crisis is a welcome clean-up. One already starts reading here and there that jobs, wages, and skills will progressively shift elsewhere in the economy, letting the financial sector become a more “normal” sector, competing for skills equally with others and no longer attracting ambitious people by its previous lure. Nationalizations or not.

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3 Responses to “Onslaught on the “financial oligarchy” from an unexpected corner”

  1. Brett Hayes Says:

    I just subscribed to your RSS feed, not sure if I did it precisely though? Good article by the way.


  2. […] in favour of whatever increases its profits. Another ex-chief economist of the IMF, Simon Johnson, argued that there is a “financial oligarchy” in the US, entertaining murky relationships with a government riddled with conflicts of […]

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