After the G-20

The meeting seemed to go well.  The world leaders fell all over themselves to get pictures with President Obama who was his usual cool self even though he didn’t get the Europeans to cough up  stimulus/recovery money of their own.  They seem to like the idea of regulations a lot more.  

 I wrote a piece a few weeks ago on the Gramm, Leach, Bliley Act as an example of degegluation that led to things like AIG.  I think the Europeans at the G-20 would like us to reinstitute some things like a version of the Gramm, Leach, Bliley Act.  Are the Administration and Congress really waiting to see the economy stabilize before the begin to write regs, or is it just a big stall hoping we will forget about it? 

Paul Krugman wrote an interesting op-ed yesterday in which he tied bankers/financiers salaries to bad stuff happening. 

Thirty-plus years ago, when I was a graduate student in economics, only the least ambitious of my classmates sought careers in the financial world. Even then, investment banks paid more than teaching or public service — but not that much more, and anyway, everyone knew that banking was, well, boring.

In the years that followed, of course, banking became anything but boring. Wheeling and dealing flourished, and pay scales in finance shot up, drawing in many of the nation’s best and brightest young people (O.K., I’m not so sure about the “best” part). And we were assured that our supersized financial sector was the key to prosperity.

Instead, however, finance turned into the monster that ate the world economy.

This is a cycle that began during the Great Depression

Before 1930, banking was an exciting industry featuring a number of larger-than-life figures, who built giant financial empires (some of which later turned out to have been based on fraud). This highflying finance sector presided over a rapid increase in debt: Household debt as a percentage of G.D.P. almost doubled between World War I and 1929.

During this first era of high finance, bankers were, on average, paid much more than their counterparts in other industries. But finance lost its glamour when the banking system collapsed during the Great Depression.

So now we have the heads of AIG, CitiBank (or whatever they call themselves now) saying they deserve their money and bonuses even though they contributed mightily to the current recession.  Even Larry Summers is fat and happy from feeding out of the financial trough.  Robert Sheer writes in The Nation

Not surprisingly, Lawrence Summers is convinced that he deserved every penny of the $8 million that Wall Street firms paid him last year. And why shouldn’t he be cut in on the loot from the loopholes in the toxic derivatives market that he pushed into law when he was Bill Clinton’s treasury secretary? No one has been more persistently effective in paving the way for the financial swindles that enriched the titans of finance while impoverishing the rest of the world than the man who is now the top economic adviser to President Obama.

It is especially disturbing that Summers got most of the $8 million from a major hedge fund at a time when such totally unregulated rich-guys-only investment clubs stand to make the most off the Obama administration’s plan for saving the banks. The scheme, as announced by Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, a Summers protégé, is to clean up the toxic holdings of the banks using taxpayer money and then turn them over to hedge funds that will risk little of their own capital. At least the banks are somewhat government-regulated, which cannot be said of the hedge funds, thanks to Summers.

 It was Summers, as much as anyone, who in the Clinton years prevented the regulation of the hedge funds that are at the center of the explosion of the derivatives bubble…

So do we have the makings of another crisis rather than a solution?  Here is Krugman again

The banking industry that emerged from that collapse was tightly regulated, far less colorful than it had been before the Depression, and far less lucrative for those who ran it. Banking became boring, partly because bankers were so conservative about lending: Household debt, which had fallen sharply as a percentage of G.D.P. during the Depression and World War II, stayed far below pre-1930s levels.

Strange to say, this era of boring banking was also an era of spectacular economic progress for most Americans.

The bottom line is we need to make banking boring again by regulating it so the Larry Summers of the world don’t get all the gain and the rest of us can do well also in our more modest way.

And finally, in case you missed it, is Paul Krugman on the Rachel Maddow show.

Making Sense of the G-20

OK.  All the leaders of all these countries got together in London.   Before the meeting it looked like the bad boy from Dick Cheney’s “old Europe”, Mr. Sarkozy of France, would walk out, leave the meeting in a huff.  Never happened.  Instead, President Obama, the new kid, got France and China to agree on some critical language on tax havens.  The world seemed astonished that a president of the United States of America could actually walk and chew gum. 

I first saw this in Friday’s print addition of the New York Times (yes, I still love that newsprint and reading without staring into a lit screen.) and after some searching found the online link and it turns out it is actually a blog turned into print.  Go figure.  Anyway, this story was titled “On a Scale of 1-10, G-20 scores a 7.” 

For someone like me who is struggling to understand the details of the economic crisis it helped decode the G-20 meeting by lisiting the 10 issues which needed to be addressed and how they did in addressing them.   The authors are Edward Hadas and Christopher Hughes.

The G-20 deserves a mark of seven out of 10. The London summit meeting, which concluded Thursday, hasn’t solved everything. But it has made important strides in both battling the current crisis and preventing future ones.

The score comes by grading the world’s leaders on the top 10 issues the G-20 faced. Each issue was scored with a zero, half a point or a whole point. But note that this is not a finely calibrated exercise. Zero doesn’t mean the G-20 achieved absolutely nothing; equally, a whole point doesn’t mean perfection.

The high scores went to fiscal stimulus, trade finance, preventing financial crisis, tax havens and confidence.  I think this last one is important because the part of the global fiscal crisis is created by uncertainty and fear.

The zero went to trade imbalances, while the rest got half points: making banks healthy, fighting protectionism, increasing the International Monetary Fund, and exit strategy.

In his Friday column about China and the dollar, Paul Krugman ended with this

The bottom line is that China hasn’t yet faced up to the wrenching changes that will be needed to deal with this global crisis. The same could, of course, be said of the Japanese, the Europeans — and us.

And that failure to face up to new realities is the main reason that, despite some glimmers of good news — the G-20 summit accomplished more than I thought it would — this crisis probably still has years to run.

I think the sticking point is that pesky financial regulation issue never mind stimulus money.  Jordan Stancil put it this way in the Nation

Abelshauser [Werner Abelshauser, an economic historian at the University of Bielefeld in Germany and a leading expert on differences in transatlantic economic cultures] argued that it’s hard to change these deeply rooted practices; therefore, Europe can’t succeed under deregulated finance, since it destroys the stability on which Europe’s economy relies. Abelshauser thought a positive outcome of the crisis would be that Europe would return to its proven model of finance.

This is an important point, because it underscores the extent to which the crisis for Europeans is fundamentally about re-establishing a financial system they think serves their interests. Thus the Euro- American debate isn’t really about whether to do stimulus or regulation first–it’s about whether the United States is going to do regulation at all.

America lacks credibility on this count, partly because Obama has not taken a strong stand against the power of finance in the United States. On the contrary, he plans to use taxpayer dollars to subsidize purchases of “toxic assets”–now renamed “legacy assets.” Against that background, the newly stern rhetoric of erstwhile deregulators like Larry Summers is not convincing because it’s clear that the Obama administration is not using the collapse to reorganize American banking along healthier lines. Instead, the US position calls to mind a line from Rousseau’s Confessions: “I pretended to reproach myself for what I had done, in order to excuse what I was going to do.”

The significance of this has not been missed in Europe. Jacques Attali, a key economic wise man in France who has advised both Socialist and conservative governments, told a business daily, “The bankers [in the United States] are going to accept a minimum of regulation. Not more. We see this clearly with the Geithner plan, which reinforces the mechanisms that led to the crisis…. Besides, do you think it’s normal to have taxpayers loaning money to investors so the investors can make profits?” According to Attali, there will be no fundamental change in US behavior on questions like leverage, securitization and debt because “the Anglo-Saxon world lives off that.”

I think this is the big problem.  Will the Obama administration listen only to people like Larry Summers and Tim Geithner who believe in the  American Capitalism free for all or will we move on to a more regulated system that protects the middle class and creates more equality?  Or will he also isten to France and Germany and Paul Krugman?  I thought a hallmark of the Obama administration was to be the ability to listen to opposing points of view before making a decision.

The compromise between France and China on tax havens negotiated by President Obama shows that we could compromise also.  Regulation in the United States could land closer to Europe without us becoming, to the horror of Republicans, just like Europe.  I’m not sure this is an either or situation, but we do need more regulation of the financial industry.  Congress and the President just need to act soon.