Makers and Takers: How Wall Street Destroyed Main Street by Rana Foroohar. Crown Business. New York. 2016.
IMAGE: JP Morgan
Thomas Picketty’s Capital in the Twenty-first Century, depicts the rise of economic inequality in the developed world since the 1970s and warns of the increased political and economic instability this may cause. Rana Froohar’s account of the rise of finance in the United States during the same period shows in more detail how that instability has come about.
The book is billed as being written for the ordinary citizen, not the economically sophisticated, but you will find plenty of terms that are not explicitly defined, especially the bewildering variety of financial instruments – futures, swaps, etc. With that caveat, this is a quite readable book, with plenty of examples and sources to back up her points. What follows are some of the things I took away from my reading. They are not in the order she presents things, but instead in a rough chronology.
To begin with, the slowdown in economic growth and rise in inflation, beginning in the late sixties, set off a search for higher-return investments. Higher returns, though, come with higher risks. Savings and Loan institutions, for instance, had to pay higher rates to attract deposits, but that meant also investing those deposits in less secure assets than home mortgages and car loans. The result was a Savings and Loan crisis (1980-1996) that required a taxpayer bailout of over a hundred billion dollars.
Starting in about the 1980s, tax laws have encouraged borrowing and favored capital gains over earned income. Cuts in top rates also let the upper percentiles of the population accumulate more wealth. Furthermore, economic ideology shifted towards the view that corporations exist only to increase the value of stockholders’ shares as rapidly as possible. “Markets know best” became the stock answer to all questions of economic policy.
Bill Clinton and his Wall Street insider Treasury Secretaries succeeded in changing banking laws to remove the prohibition on commercial banks selling securities as well as making loans. Banks got bigger: some, “too big to fail.” From 1995-2000, the dot com bubble was a further indication of the greater instability in the financial system.
The rapid growth of mortgages on existing houses and the complicated, high risk securities that were based on them led to a still worse crash in 2008. Rather than reining in that kind of speculation, lawmakers and regulators did little to change the incentives that lay behind the debacle or punish those responsible, even when fraud may have occurred.
Our current situation is easy credit, lax regulation and an ideology that favors shareholders over all others in deciding how publicly traded companies are run. Rather than serving as a means to channel money towards productive investments, the financial system is creating more and more debt based on existing assets. Corporate buyouts, often involving huge amounts of borrowing, are one example.
Successful companies like Apple have lots of cash, but it is hoarded, especially in offshore banks, or plowed into financial investments like credit card lending, rather than into new plants, research and development or improving the condition of the workforce by raising wages and benefits. Boards of directors spend trillions on stock buybacks that help mainly wealthy shareholders, and the top executives, who are paid mostly with stock options.
The financial sector of the economy now receives almost a third of all corporate profits, triple its share as of the early 1990s. In return it delivers slow economic growth, flat wages and great risk of another crash. Most people have little or no retirement savings. What they do have is often in insecure, high fee investment funds that enrich their managers at the expense of their clients.
Thus, as Froohar explains, the financial sector, whose function was to enable money to flow into the hands of the productive in exchange for reasonable interest or dividends, has become an end in itself, growing larger at the expense of everyone else’s security and prosperity. The mutually beneficial fiduciary (trust based) relationship between society and bankers has been replaced by almost unrestricted exploitation of the economy and society by bankers. The popular discontent this leads to is evident all around us.
It seems to me, as an ecologist, rather than an economist, that the situation is like a beneficial symbiont mutating into a virulent parasite of its host. By taking more of the host’s resources and giving back less, the parasite can replicate faster, driving out the beneficial variety, but in the long run, the host population will become unstable and decline or even go extinct. That is unless the host evolves to resist the parasite.
The difference between the two scenarios is that while mutation and environmental changes are beyond the control of the players in the evolutionary game, the ethical, social and legal environment of business is subject to democratic process. The question is whether the majority can somehow prevent the wealthy from writing the rules to suit themselves. Donald Trump exploited popular discontent in his successful campaign against a candidate strongly identified with Wall Street. In office, however, his actions have been much more favorable to the extremely rich.
Could a leader like Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren, with new legislators committed to change, begin to turn things around? Will it have to wait for schools of business and economics to begin teaching about fiduciary responsibility to society as a whole, not just stockholders? Like a host lucky enough to mutate so as to resist its new parasite, our society might once again, as in the New Deal era, fight off this disease before depression, violent revolution or fascism set in.