Thursday, May 12, 2016

Do We Really Need to Save Capitalism?

Rana Foroohar seems to think so, at Time, "American Capitalism’s Great Crisis":

A couple of weeks ago, a poll conducted by the Harvard Institute of Politics found something startling: only 19% of Americans ages 18 to 29 identified themselves as “capitalists.” In the richest and most market-oriented country in the world, only 42% of that group said they “supported capitalism.” The numbers were higher among older people; still, only 26% considered themselves capitalists. A little over half supported the system as a whole.

This represents more than just millennials not minding the label “socialist” or disaffected middle-aged Americans tiring of an anemic recovery. This is a majority of citizens being uncomfortable with the country’s economic foundation—a system that over hundreds of years turned a fledgling society of farmers and prospectors into the most prosperous nation in human history. To be sure, polls measure feelings, not hard market data. But public sentiment reflects day-to-day economic reality. And the data (more on that later) shows Americans have plenty of concrete reasons to question their system.

This crisis of faith has had no more severe expression than the 2016 presidential campaign, which has turned on the questions of who, exactly, the system is working for and against, as well as why eight years and several trillions of dollars of stimulus on from the financial crisis, the economy is still growing so slowly. All the candidates have prescriptions: Sanders talks of breaking up big banks; Trump says hedge funders should pay higher taxes; Clinton wants to strengthen existing financial regulation. In Congress, Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan remains committed to less regulation.

All of them are missing the point. America’s economic problems go far beyond rich bankers, too-big-to-fail financial institutions, hedge-fund billionaires, offshore tax avoidance or any particular outrage of the moment. In fact, each of these is symptomatic of a more nefarious condition that threatens, in equal measure, the very well-off and the very poor, the red and the blue. The U.S. system of market capitalism itself is broken. That problem, and what to do about it, is at the center of my book Makers and Takers: The Rise of Finance and the Fall of American Business, a three-year research and reporting effort from which this piece is adapted.

To understand how we got here, you have to understand the relationship between capital markets—meaning the financial system—and businesses. From the creation of a unified national bond and banking system in the U.S. in the late 1790s to the early 1970s, finance took individual and corporate savings and funneled them into productive enterprises, creating new jobs, new wealth and, ultimately, economic growth. Of course, there were plenty of blips along the way (most memorably the speculation leading up to the Great Depression, which was later curbed by regulation). But for the most part, finance—which today includes everything from banks and hedge funds to mutual funds, insurance firms, trading houses and such—essentially served business. It was a vital organ but not, for the most part, the central one.

Over the past few decades, finance has turned away from this traditional role. Academic research shows that only a fraction of all the money washing around the financial markets these days actually makes it to Main Street businesses. “The intermediation of household savings for productive investment in the business sector—the textbook description of the financial sector—constitutes only a minor share of the business of banking today,” according to academics Oscar Jorda, Alan Taylor and Moritz Schularick, who’ve studied the issue in detail. By their estimates and others, around 15% of capital coming from financial institutions today is used to fund business investments, whereas it would have been the majority of what banks did earlier in the 20th century.

“The trend varies slightly country by country, but the broad direction is clear,” says Adair Turner, a former British banking regulator and now chairman of the Institute for New Economic Thinking, a think tank backed by George Soros, among others. “Across all advanced economies, and the United States and the U.K. in particular, the role of the capital markets and the banking sector in funding new investment is decreasing.” Most of the money in the system is being used for lending against existing assets such as housing, stocks and bonds.

To get a sense of the size of this shift, consider that the financial sector now represents around 7% of the U.S. economy, up from about 4% in 1980. Despite currently taking around 25% of all corporate profits, it creates a mere 4% of all jobs. Trouble is, research by numerous academics as well as institutions like the Bank for International Settlements and the International Monetary Fund shows that when finance gets that big, it starts to suck the economic air out of the room. In fact, finance starts having this adverse effect when it’s only half the size that it currently is in the U.S. Thanks to these changes, our economy is gradually becoming “a zero-sum game between financial wealth holders and the rest of America,” says former Goldman Sachs banker Wallace Turbeville, who runs a multiyear project on the rise of finance at the New York City—based nonprofit Demos.

It’s not just an American problem, either. Most of the world’s leading market economies are grappling with aspects of the same disease. Globally, free-market capitalism is coming under fire, as countries across Europe question its merits and emerging markets like Brazil, China and Singapore run their own forms of state-directed capitalism. An ideologically broad range of financiers and elite business managers—Warren Buffett, BlackRock’s Larry Fink, Vanguard’s John Bogle, McKinsey’s Dominic Barton, Allianz’s Mohamed El-Erian and others—have started to speak out publicly about the need for a new and more inclusive type of capitalism, one that also helps businesses make better long-term decisions rather than focusing only on the next quarter. The Pope has become a vocal critic of modern market capitalism, lambasting the “idolatry of money and the dictatorship of an impersonal economy” in which “man is reduced to one of his needs alone: consumption.”

During my 23 years in business and economic journalism, I’ve long wondered why our market system doesn’t serve companies, workers and consumers better than it does. For some time now, finance has been thought by most to be at the very top of the economic hierarchy, the most aspirational part of an advanced service economy that graduated from agriculture and manufacturing. But research shows just how the unintended consequences of this misguided belief have endangered the very system America has prided itself on exporting around the world.

America’s economic illness has a name: financialization. It’s an academic term for the trend by which Wall Street and its methods have come to reign supreme in America, permeating not just the financial industry but also much of American business. It includes everything from the growth in size and scope of finance and financial activity in the economy; to the rise of debt-fueled speculation over productive lending; to the ascendancy of shareholder value as the sole model for corporate governance; to the proliferation of risky, selfish thinking in both the private and public sectors; to the increasing political power of financiers and the CEOs they enrich; to the way in which a “markets know best” ideology remains the status quo. Financialization is a big, unfriendly word with broad, disconcerting implications.

University of Michigan professor Gerald Davis, one of the pre-eminent scholars of the trend, likens financialization to a “Copernican revolution” in which business has reoriented its orbit around the financial sector. This revolution is often blamed on bankers. But it was facilitated by shifts in public policy, from both sides of the aisle, and crafted by the government leaders, policymakers and regulators entrusted with keeping markets operating smoothly.
This is: "Economics for Dummy Leftists."

All the sources and experts cited are leftists. They hate capitalism, a term invented by Karl Marx to demonize free market economics.

The trend Faroohar is describing here is simply change. Markets and finance are changing, and innovation and concentration in the finance sector isn't a cause of growing inequality or the public despair over sluggishness.

What's harming the average worker, and preventing more regular people from improving their income and wealth, is stagnating GDP. The economy is growing at 0.5 percent. No wonder the titans of finance are the only ones who're better off. There's no rising tide to lift all boats. The Obama administration's obsessed with the phony campus rape crisis and gender neutral restrooms. Democrats don't care about improving the economic prospects of average Americans. Now that's depressing. And what's more depressing is how economically illiterate all these hacks are, from the so-called financial journalists quick to blame the "system" to the idiot Millennials who wouldn't know a production possibilities frontier if it hit them upside the head.

Keep reading, FWIW.