Wednesday, February 3, 2016
In Oz, we're annoyed mainly by the banks' very big profits and the way they never seem to miss a trick in keeping those profits high.
In other countries, people are angry about the way the banks and other financial institutions, having stuffed up their affairs to the point where they almost brought the global economy to its knees, were promptly bailed out at taxpayers' expense, so that few went bust, with almost no executives going to jail and many not even being fired.
By now, however, you're probably used to bankers and economists saying you don't understand and are quite unreasonable in your criticisms.
That's why you need to know about the book, Other People's Money, by John Kay. Kay, who's visiting Australia and this week spoke to a meeting organised by the Grattan Institute, says he wrote the book to help ordinary people understand "what it is they're angry about".
You want the dirt on the banks? No one's better qualified to spill the beans than Kay, an economics professor from Oxford and columnist for the Financial Times, who was commissioned to write a report on the sharemarket for the British government.
He starts by noting that over the past 30 or 40 years, each of the developed economies has experienced "financialisation" – huge growth in the size of what these days is called their "financial services sector" to the point where it's among their biggest industries.
For years, we've been told this is a wonderful thing, a sign of our economy's growing sophistication and ability to manage risk. Kay doesn't believe it.
We've always had a financial sector composed of banks, insurance companies and other institutions, and we've always needed one.
We've needed it to help us make payments to each other, to bring people wanting to save together with homeowners and businesses wanting to borrow, to help us save for retirement and to help individuals and businesses manage the risks associated with daily life and economic activity (insurance policies being the obvious example).
We need a financial sector to service the needs of the "real economy" of households and businesses producing and consuming goods and services. But none of this justifies the huge growth in the financial sector we've seen.
Most of that growth has come in the form of massively increased trading between the banks themselves in "financial claims", such as shares and bonds and foreign currencies and "derivatives" (claims on claims, and even – if you've seen The Big Short – claims on claims on claims).
If you add together all the financial assets ("claims") owned by all the banks and other financial outfits, they exceed by many times the value of the physical assets – such as houses and business buildings and equipment – which are the ultimate basis for all those claims.
The value of foreign currencies changing hands each day vastly exceeds the value of currencies needed by businesses and tourists paying for exports and imports. Similarly, the value of shares changing hands each day vastly exceeds companies' needs to raise new share capital and end-investors' needs to buy into the market or sell out.
Kay says that, in Britain, bank lending to firms and individuals in the real economy amounts to only about 3 per cent of their total lending.
All the rest is lending to other banks and institutions busy buying and selling bits of paper to each other – making bets with each other that the prices of those bits of paper will rise or fall in coming days.
Kay makes what, for an economist, is the very strong condemnation that almost all this speculative activity is "socially unproductive". It might or might not benefit the people doing the trading, but it's of no benefit to the rest of the economy.
He observes something I've noticed, too: economists have put little effort into explaining why all this trading in claims is so hugely profitable, allowing people near the top of the banks (but not their many foot soldiers) to be paid such amazing salaries.
If all they're doing is making bets with each other, why aren't the gains of the winners exactly cancelled out by the losses of the losers?
His answer is that the claims-trading parts of banks have found ways to exaggerate the profits they make by counting expected future profits they haven't actually captured – "paper profits" – but delaying recognition of expected "paper losses" until they're realised.
This game can continue for as long as everything's on the up and the bubble's getting bigger. Once it bursts, of course, former supposed profits become present, unavoidable losses. Many banks teeter on bankruptcy, but the government bails them out and they live to gamble another day.
Kay says the answer is to rigidly separate the old-fashioned parts of banking – the facilitation of payments, and lending to households and businesses; the bits that must be kept going through recessions – from all the speculative trading in claims.
It's a free country and "investment" banks should remain free to bet against each other, but there should be no taxpayer bailouts or other government protection for those that do their dough.