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Banks get found out

How they continued to profit in a sawtooth no-growth economy

Everyone says they’re not surprised, but today’s revelations in the New York Times and Britain’s The Independent have shaken the masters of the financial universe to their core.

Their evidence shows that banks have been using their influence with governments to prevent precisely the sorts of reforms that are needed to pull the economy out of its nosedive.

We all know that prior to 2007’s Credit Crunch, and in public pursuit of “continued economic growth,” bankers started making bigger and riskier bets, often with the implicit backing of governments.

We also know that in many cases political connections allowed them to push back onto government the substantial problems that resulted.

The investment banks built massive business empires on mountains of debt. It’s clear that excessive debt always ends badly, for individuals, companies and countries.

Towards the end no one will lend you money on affordable terms, and finally none at all.

In the case of the Credit Crunch, global investors suddenly stopped lending because they feared that they would not recover their investment. That fear became self-fulfilling.

A chart on the front cover of The Independent characterizes today’s reality as “a sawtooth” economy, with massive peaks and troughs, but zero growth. Despite this, the financial sector has shown continued growth and even boom times.

Take the US as an example. From 1973 to 1985, the financial sector earned less than 16% of corporate profits. By 1986, the sector share reached 19%. During the 1990s it ranged between 21% and 30%. In the 2000s it reached 41%.

And it wasn’t just profits that rose abnormally. Bankers’ pay rose dramatically too. For the past 50 years prior to 2000, bankers’ pay was at the average for all of private industry. By 2007 it had reached 181% of the norm.

It has become absolutely clear that no matter how volatile the sawtooth economy, it has always benefited the financial sector.

Governments seemed unable to act against this trend, until now. Editorials are calling for “a new age of banking.”

In 2010 Mervyn King, the governor of the Bank of England, proclaimed: “Of all the many ways of organizing banking, the worst is the one we have today.” Yesterday he added: “Economic recovery will fail unless we break the financial oligarchy that is blocking essential reform. If we want to prevent a true depression, we’re running out of time. We have to act now.”

Warning: Hazardous thinking at work

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