Negative interest rates show finance has gone postmodern. The system has become self-referential and value-free, in a way that might please cultural theorists. That’s supposed to help the real economy run more smoothly. But it’s risky, high-handed and not fair to savers.
I was unceremoniously kicked out of my last job in finance early in 2004. It was a career turning point for me after 24 years as an equity analyst at eight firms – brokers and investment managers – in both the United States and Europe. I took shelter in financial journalism. Much has changed in the money business since then. But reading about the behaviour that has led to a litany of huge fines, I fear that too much remained the same, at least until very recently.
Last week the British government gave a new freedom to its citizens, or at least to a relatively privileged group of them. No longer will pensioners with defined contribution retirement plans be forced to invest their accumulated funds in an annuity. The old requirement was a form of financial coercion: government rules which influence behaviour.
Some economic activity makes the world better, some is a cost of making the world better, and some actually makes the world worse. Where does the business of finance – lending, borrowing and securities trading – fit in? Mark Carney, the new governor of the Bank of England, recently said: “a vibrant financial sector brings substantial benefits.” The implication is that more finance is a good thing, as long as it is safe. That is simply wrong.
The governments of developed countries have the power to rescue economies from defective finance. There is a radical solution. It would be relatively easy and at least as fair as the current slow generation-long recovery from the 2008 financial collapse.