“Dreamed about AIG and the stock market, woke up with the urge to stock up on canned goods and shotguns.” — Michele Catalano of Long Island, an angry blogger.
The month of September was cruel for Wall Street. Stormy winds blew away the venerable institutions of Wall Street and they collapsed one by one like a pack of cards. Lehman Brothers, the 158-year investment global investment bank, went belly up. Merrill Lynch was swallowed up by Bank of America. American International Group (AIG), a $1 trillion insurance company, had to be rescued by $85 billion dollar deal by the Federal Government on the ground that it was too big to fall. Capturing the mood of panic in Wall Street, Mike Whitney, a widely quoted freelance writer, wrote “Lehman gone; Merrill Lynch swallowed up; AIG Going. . . . Who’s Next for Madam Defarge?”1
Madam Defarge and the tumbrels were kept busy while heads rolled in the basket in a grisly fashion. Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the biggies of mortgage lenders, became terminally ill, requiring a massive bailout at a cost estimated to be in the region of $5.3 trillion. Washington Mutual went bust followed by Wachovia. Earlier in March, Bear Stearns became insolvent after bad bets turned into bad debts requiring Fed intervention. The concept of Wall Street investment banking was blown sky high when the remaining Goliaths Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs hemorrhaged sustaining huge losses and took the unprecedented step to covert themselves into low-risk and tightly regulated commercial banks. The pervasive mood of despair and anger of Main Street was reflected by the black humor on Wall Street, one of the most popular being: “Question — what is the difference between a pigeon and an investment banker? Answer — only a pigeon can make a deposit on a BMW.”
The dour-looking, Harvard-educated economist Nouriel Roubini was one of the early sceptics to predict the financial meltdown in Wall Street when he dropped the bombshell way back in 2006 that US would be heading towards the most serious financial and banking crisis since the Great Depression. His dark prophecies were met with derision and disbelief earning him the epithet — the prophet of doom. But Roubini had the last laugh when the US financial system melted down as he had predicted and he became an instant celebrity on media channels.
A Bipartisan Blunder
One of the contributing factors for the financial meltdown was the reckless financial deregulation that led to financial concentration and inefficient markets. The perception of regulation as hampering the animal magnetism of Wall Street bankers was a dangerous delusion that fostered the irrational drive to take unacceptable risks. As the economist Arthur MacEwan explains, “When financial firms are not regulated, they tend to take on more and more risky activities. When markets are rising, risk does not seem to be very much of a problem; all — or virtually all — investments seem to be making money. So why not take some chances? Furthermore, if one firm doesn’t take particular risk — put money into a chancy operation — then one of its competitors will. So competition pushes them into more and more risky operations.”2
Moreover, the extent of deregulation reached dangerous levels with the repeal of Glass-Steagall Act of 1933, which was passed after the financial debacle of 1929. This act separated investment banking from commercial banking and protected the investors from risky speculation of investment banking. Thus a commercial bank could not be in both insurance and/or investment business.
Hectic lobbying for Wall Street by Phil Gramm — the Republican Senator from Texas and the economic advisor for John McCain — and Robert Rubin in the Clinton administration were the guiding forces for the repeal of the act. This repeal became law when it received President Clinton’s assent in 1999. In 2000 another nail was driven in the regulatory coffin when Gramm introduced the Commodity Futures Modernization Act, which excluded the scrutiny of counter derivatives, credit derivatives, credit defaults, and swaps, by regulatory agencies. Many economists hold the view that the repeal of the Glass-Steagal Act was instrumental in causing the 2007 subprime mortgage crisis.
The crucial point is to note that Wall Street enjoyed the support of both the Republicans and the Democrats for the repeal of the act. Even today both the presidential candidates Obama and McCain receive campaign money from Wall Street bankers and executives. This prompted Ralph Nader, the consumer activist, to acidly comment that there are no significant differences between Democrats and Republicans on major issues pertaining to Wall Street.
A Flawed Business Model
The reward system is skewed in favor of brokers who make money for their Wall Street employer and not how well the client portfolios perform. As Pam Martens, an insider of Wall Street, says, “A Wall Street broker receives remuneration that rises from approximately 30 to 50 per cent of the gross commission based on their cumulative trading commissions with zero regard to how well the clients’ accounts have done.” This attitude is responsible in her words for “the industry to be irreconcilably incentivized to corruption just as brokers have been socialized to silence.” This is on account of the fact that the broker receives more commission on investing junk bonds in client portfolios rather than investing in safe treasuries.
The other questionable practice is housing a trading desk inside the same company that is supposed to give unbiased research to the public. As Pam Martens points out, “For example, let’s say that XYZ Brokerage buys a big stake in ABC Company on its proprietary trading desk (the desk that trades for profits for the firm) on Wednesday afternoon. On Thursday afternoon, it could almost guarantee profits for itself by issuing a research report upgrading the stock. Conversely, it could short the stock on Wednesday and issue a negative report to drive down the price on Thursday, also guaranteeing itself a profit. Other than a fictional Chinese Wall, there is absolutely nothing to stop this type of public looting.”3
Perils of a Casino Economy
While greed, corruption, and an excessively deregulated financial market offer interesting explanations about the systemic collapse of Wall Street, they remain unsatisfactory as they do not explain or explore the deeper malaise afflicting the US economy. For a rigorous and conceptually sound analysis, one must turn to the series of extraordinary essays written by Harry Magdoff and Paul Sweezy in Monthly Review during the 1970 and 1980s.
The main thrust of the articles was to show that the general economic tendency of mature capitalism is toward stagnation. The main challenge of capitalist economy is surplus capital, which has diminishing opportunities for profitable investment. Deploying investment in the mature productive economy yields fewer returns as the markets are saturated. A number of strategies such as military spending, government spending, consumer spending, exploitation of third-world economies as sources of cheap labor, raw materials, and markets are used to counter stagnation in capitalist economies but do not resolve the problem of stagnation. As the authors point out, “The tendency to stagnation is inherent in the system, deeply rooted and in continuous operation. The counter-tendencies, on the other hand, are varied, intermittent, and (most important), self-limiting.”4
The problem of surplus capital finding suitable avenues for profitable return is sometimes solved by key inventions and technologies, which provide economic stimuli. The invention of automobile in the “early twentieth century led eventually to huge developments that transformed the U.S. economy, even aside from the mass ownership of automobiles: the building of an extensive system of roads, bridges, and tunnels; the need for a network of gas stations, restaurants, automotive parts and repair shops; the efficient and inexpensive movement of goods from any location to any other location.” But the new information technologies such as computers, software, and the Internet do not appear to provide the same epoch making long-term economic stimuli as automobiles did.5
In the productive economy, money is used to purchase raw materials, machines, and labor to produce commodities, which are sold, with the capitalist receiving back money (M-C-M). While in speculation, money makes more money directly, represented as M-M. A significant change in the way banks and financial institutions operate today as opposed to the past lies in the fact that the massive borrowed money goes into speculative finance and very little is invested in the productive economy. There is practically no stimulatory effect on the economy: there are few jobs created as there are relatively fewer people employed in the speculative economy. The profits generated by speculation are rarely invested in factories or the service sector but finds its way for financing more risky financial schemes creating speculative bubbles.
This sorry state of affairs is evident when one examines the failed financial institutions of Wall Street. One common denominator linking these institutions is that all were undercapitalized and overleveraged. As Mike Whitney points out, “when Bear Stearns went down, it was levered at a ratio of 26 to 1. When Carlyle capital blew up, it was levered at 32 to 1. And when Fannie and Freddie were finally taken over by the US Treasury the two behemoths were levered at 80 to 1, which is to say that they had a one dollar cushion for every $80 they had loaned out.”
With huge quantity of money sloshing around the world and being invested into finance, there has been an explosion of speculation. One mind-boggling figure is “the daily trading on the world currency markets, which has gone from $18 billion a day in 1977, to the current average of $1.8 trillion a day! That means that every twenty-four days the dollar volume of currency trading equals the entire world’s annual GDP!” Moreover, “Today financial analysts frequently pretend that finance can levitate forever at higher and higher levels independently of the underlying productive economy. Stock markets and currency trading (betting that one nation’s currency will change relative to another) have become little more than giant casinos where the number and values of transactions have increased far out of proportion to the underlying economy.”6
This flight of investment from the productive economy to the casino economy is made worse by the availability of easy credit to persons who are least creditworthy. Many Americans who had little financial stability to buy houses took on mortgages, which were attractive on the face of it but carried a heavy debt burden. As real wages declined for the American household, it took on more debts for meeting the consumption needs. Total household debt stood at the end of March 2006 at 11.8 trillion.
Prudence in lending money to creditworthy persons was thrown to the winds as the banks encouraged people to borrow more and spend more. As the report in Wall Street Journal says, “The banks are more aggressive because they rarely keep the loans they make. Instead, they sell them to others, who then repackage, or securitize, the loans and sell them to investors in exotic-sounding vehicles, such as CLOs, or collateralized-loan obligations. Every week brings announcements of billions of dollars in new CLOs, created by traditional money-management and hedge funds, which then sell them to other investors.”7
The Toxic Power of Optimism
The belief in alchemy led mankind in the futile quest of converting base metal into gold. The bankers and traders in Wall Street were the practitioners of the alchemy of finance, which was the elusive quest of converting junk bonds into real wealth. There was an incorrigible optimism and conviction that ordinary people were meant to be rich. There was also goodwill for the captains of finance whose investment schemes were magic wands to transport investors to prosperity. Such a feeling of trust, as Galbraith reminds us, is essential for the boom.
The media played its role by lulling us into a false feeling of comfort by assuring that the fundamentals of the economy was strong and invincible. Critical views were suppressed in debates as the effusions of malcontents. A financial disaster was merely technical correction and there was more money to be made in depressed stock prices. As the financial pillars collapsed in Wall Street last month, a pie hit the glum faces of the financial analysts. The malcontents were right. As Galbraith again reminds us wisely, “when people are cautious, questioning, misanthropic, suspicious, or mean, they are immune to speculative enthusiasms.”8 In the aftermath of the melt down, the sceptics were rehabilitated quickly and became instant celebrities on talk shows. They taught us an important lesson, which the financier Bernard Baruch learned during the Great Depression: “Any one taken as a individual is tolerable sensible and reasonable — as a member of a crowd, he at once becomes a blockhead.”
Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.
From the financial bubbles of the Mississippi scheme and South-Sea Bubble to the delusions of Tulip mania and the Great Depression, nothing much has changed. As Charles Mackay says in his book Extraordinary Popular Delusions & the Madness of Crowds, “Money, again, has often been a cause of the delusion of multitudes. Sober nations have all at once become desperate gamblers, and risked almost their existence upon the turn of a piece of paper.”
But there is very little that one learns from speculative disasters, as human memory is short and unreliable. The Great Depression taught the American public the perils of unregulated market and the elected representatives passed the Glass-Steagal Act to protect the ordinary investors from financial ruin. The Act was repealed in 1999 when the memory dimmed about the Great Depression. Then another financial disaster hit Wall Street. Now there is talk of imposing controls on financial markets again.
“Wall Street,” a cynic once said, ” is a Street with a river at one end and a graveyard at the other.” Perhaps it would be appropriate to inscribe on the tombstone the words, Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. The inscription in French simply means, the more things change, the more they’re the same.
4 Stagnation and the Financial Explosion, Monthly Review Press, 1987.
6 Fred Magdoff, ibid.
7 Wall Street Journal, 3 March 2006, qtd. in Magdoff, ibid.
C R Sridhar, in his own words, is a Koshy’s regular, a Tinto Brass fan, and a cynical Bangalorean. This article was first published in Desicritics.org on 6 October 2008.