Is finance doing what it’s supposed to?
Seven years after the financial crisis and five years into the Dodd-Frank era of better supervision of the financial services industry, why is finance still controversial? Despite significant progress in reducing large financial institutions’ risk of failure and some financial abuses reined in around the edges, there’s ample evidence that much of finance is still detracting from rather than contributing to economic wellbeing.
How do we know? Because even as the global supply of capital soars to new heights, thanks to both expansionary monetary policy and excess private saving, corporate profits, particularly in finance, hit record levels, while average people are still paying a high price for borrowing. This paradoxical confluence of abundant capital for the well-connected and high corporate profits implies that corporations face little competition, because in theory abundant capital would make it easy for competitors or incumbents to expand their profitable operations, driving margins down. These same facts also suggest that what economists sometimes call the “real economy” hasn’t been cut in on the sweet deal available to banks, quasi-banks, and others with access to the privilege of cheap money. The result is a profusion of economic rents—unearned resource extraction by economic actors in a lucky position to profit from their advantage.
These were some of the conclusions from events held by the Roosevelt Institute last Wednesday to release a report called “Rewriting the Rules,” and by the Institute for New Economic Thinking on “Finance and Society” the week before. Both offered alternative interpretations of what the financial sector does, why it has become so large, powerful, and profitable, and what can or should be done to reform it without harming the economy as a whole.
Everyone from Federal Reserve Board chair Janet Yellen and International Monetary Fund managing director Christine Lagarde to Nobel Prize-winning economists Joseph Stiglitz and Robert Solow (as well as random ranters in the audience) noted that finance is a necessary feature of the economy. The sector provides liquidity and channels capital from savers to borrowers. So why were two major conferences held on the premise that something is wrong with a sector whose existence benefits us all?
Because, as most of both events’ participants argued, finance isn’t doing that job. The process of moving capital from savers to borrowers is inefficient and funds are actually flowing in the opposite direction—out of corporations and the real economy and into the hands of the wealthy, providing them with a healthy return on their savings at the expense of everyone paying high prices for loans, for telecommunications, housing, education, and other important products and services. Finance may even be shrinking the pie by redirecting human resources away from productive activities and toward strategizing new ways to divert the flow of cash to narrow private benefit.
That entire structural re-engineering of the economy is the fundamental driver of rising inequality at the top of the wealth and income ladder while everyone else is struggling to make a living in a slack labor market.
At the Institute for New Economic Thinking event, both Esther George, the President of the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City, and Claudia Buch, the Deputy President of the German Bundesbank, agreed that by supplying so much liquidity, central banks had in effect done all they could for society. But the rules of the economy, both written and unwritten, don’t automatically translate abundant, low-cost capital for financial institutions into gains for the real economy.
The idea that abundant capital would automatically benefit the rest of the economy is a part of the economics mythology of the “invisible hand”—that the free market will allocate resources–in this case capital–most productively, benefiting everyone. It’s a useful theory when it comes to defeating any challenge to the status quo, but it isn’t actually true. As Robert Solow said at the Roosevelt Institute’s event, we have enough evidence at this point to add a fifth universal element to the classical Greek four: “Bullshit.”
The Roosevelt Institute’s report is a good place to start when it comes to reforming the financial sector and the economy as a whole. But important as individual proposals are, a new narrative is emerging that rejects the false promise of a self-regulating, naturally welfare-promoting economy, with its gears greased by a large and powerful financial sector. There’s nothing natural or foreordained about the economy we inhabit, and past experience shows that meaningful progressive policies do not destroy the foundations of economic wellbeing, but rather create them. That doesn’t mean such reforms are easy to enact, but it does mean that it’s time the ideological walls protecting ever-increasing inequality were breached.