In its depth and suddenness, the U.S. economic and financial crisis is shockingly reminiscent of moments we have recently seen in emerging markets (and only in emerging markets): South Korea (1997), Malaysia (1998), Russia and Argentina (time and again). In each of those cases, global investors, afraid that the country or its financial sector wouldn’t be able to pay off mountainous debt, suddenly stopped lending. And in each case, that fear became self-fulfilling, as banks that couldn’t roll over their debt did, in fact, become unable to pay. This is precisely what drove Lehman Brothers into bankruptcy on September 15, causing all sources of funding to the U.S. financial sector to dry up overnight. Just as in emerging-market crises, the weakness in the banking system has quickly rippled out into the rest of the economy, causing a severe economic contraction and hardship for millions of people.
But there’s a deeper and more disturbing similarity: 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. [my emphasis]
My only worry about Johnson’s argument is that he portrays the crisis as the result of individuals’ actions. His experience with emerging economies trained him to view the “Masters of the Universe” as oligarchs corrupting politics. But what I think is going on is more insidious. The problem is not that democracy is becoming oligarchy – although this is a danger we are closer to than we realize given the escalating consolidation of wealth – it is a financial sector that has grown out of balance with the real economy. ((With again the caveat that this is not backed up as much with economic analysis but with my sense and knowledge of politics, government, and history.)) Johnson and Paul Krugman both point this out repeatedly in their work – but neither of them identifies this as the problem. They instead see this as a symptom.
They are probably right – but I have a nagging suspicion that the core of this financial crisis – and that of the Great Depression – is at root a similar imbalance between the size of the financial markets and the size of the real economy.
Fundamentally, it seems there must be a limit as to what percentage of an economy can be managed by the financial markets. Just as the centralization of decision-making in the government can lead to inefficiencies, so can the centralization of decision-making in large financial instituions. Many of these factors that Johnson and Krugman talk about – increasing income disparity, asset bubbles, solvency issues, etcetera – can easily be seen as causes and/or effects of this central imbalance.