Which is the bigger threat to the world’s peace and prosperity – geopolitical conflict or financial disarray? In a more violent world, it is easy to forget the significant danger posed by finance.
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.
Buildings should be strong enough to withstand storms and earthquakes. Similarly, banks should be able to remain upright after massive waves of losses. Engineers have a pretty good idea of how to make skyscrapers strong. The regulators and lawmakers who set the rules for big banks are still struggling, five years after the government rescue of many American and European banks.