08 August 2010

The Fall of the American Republic: The Quiet Coup By Simon Johnson

"From 1973 to 1985, the financial sector never earned more than 16 percent of domestic corporate profits. In 1986, that figure reached 19 percent. In the 1990s, it oscillated between 21 percent and 30 percent, higher than it had ever been in the postwar period. This decade, it reached 41 percent."

Now might be a good time to re-read The Quiet Coup by Simon Johnson which appeared in The Atlantic Magazine.

Although he keeps using the term "emerging market governments" in fact he is discussing a post bubble country that has experienced a period of express, fostered by a partnership between business and government that is known as crony capitalism.

Here is his description of the rise of the financial sector in the US from his book, 13 Bankers, which describes how the rise of concentrated financial power poses a threat to economic well-being is a must read as well.
"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. Several other factors helped fuel the financial industry’s ascent. Paul Volcker’s monetary policy in the 1980s, and the increased volatility in interest rates that accompanied it, made bond trading much more lucrative. The invention of securitization, interest-rate swaps, and credit-default swaps greatly increased the volume of transactions that bankers could make money on. And an aging and increasingly wealthy population invested more and more money in securities, helped by the invention of the IRA and the 401(k) plan. Together, these developments vastly increased the profit opportunities in financial services.

Not surprisingly, Wall Street ran with these opportunities. From 1973 to 1985, the financial sector never earned more than 16 percent of domestic corporate profits. In 1986, that figure reached 19 percent. In the 1990s, it oscillated between 21 percent and 30 percent, higher than it had ever been in the postwar period. This decade, it reached 41 percent. Pay rose just as dramatically. From 1948 to 1982, average compensation in the financial sector ranged between 99 percent and 108 percent of the average for all domestic private industries. From 1983, it shot upward, reaching 181 percent in 2007."

I have not read his book yet, but it's on my list. I hope he includes some information on the decade long campaign to repeal Glass-Steagall, led by Sandy Weill and Robert Rubin, which opened Pandora's box in 1999. It is a mistake to view what happened as some accident, or a natural development. It was a pre-meditated campaign to subvert the economy and the political protections of the vast majority of US citizens.

In the meanwhile, here are a few quotes from his piece in Atlantic Magazine which is a prelude piece to his book.
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.
But inevitably, emerging-market oligarchs get carried away; they waste money and build massive business empires on a mountain of debt. Local banks, sometimes pressured by the government, become too willing to extend credit to the elite and to those who depend on them. Overborrowing always ends badly, whether for an individual, a company, or a country. Sooner or later, credit conditions become tighter and no one will lend you money on anything close to affordable terms.
"Squeezing the oligarchs, though, is seldom the strategy of choice among emerging-market governments. Quite the contrary: at the outset of the crisis, the oligarchs are usually among the first to get extra help from the government, such as preferential access to foreign currency, or maybe a nice tax break, or—here’s a classic Kremlin bailout technique—the assumption of private debt obligations by the government. Under duress, generosity toward old friends takes many innovative forms. Meanwhile, needing to squeeze someone, most emerging-market governments look first to ordinary working folk—at least until the riots grow too large."

The Banks must be restrained, and the financial system reformed, with balance restored to the economy, before there can be any sustained recovery.

I am not so optimistic that this reform is possible, because there has in fact been a soft coup d'etat in the US, which now exists in a state of crony corporatism that wields enormous influence over the media and within the government.  To be clear about this, the oligarchs are flush with victory, and feel that they are firmly in control, able to subvert and direct any popular movement to the support of their own ends and unslakable will to power.
This is the contempt in which they hold the majority of American people and the political process: the common people are easily led fools, and everyone else who is smart enough to know better has their price. And they would beggar every middle class voter in the US before they will voluntarily give up one dime of their ill gotten gains.
But my model says that the oligarchs will continue to press their advantages, being flushed with victory, until they provoke a strong reaction that frightens everyone, like a wake up call, and the tide then turns to genuine reform.