Each passing month it becomes increasingly clear that the current economic troubles do not belong to the family of brief post-war recessions to which we have become accustomed.
Instead, we are witnessing the rolling implosion of Finance Capitalism and its little brother, Globalism.
Here is the Village Voice…
It’s 2009. You’re laid off, furloughed, foreclosed on, or you know someone who is. You wonder where you’ll fit into the grim new semi-socialistic post-post-industrial economy colloquially known as “this mess.”
You’re astonished and possibly ashamed that mutant financial instruments dreamed up in your great country have spawned worldwide misery. You can’t comprehend, much less trim, the amount of bailout money parachuting into the laps of incompetents, hoarders, and miscreants. It’s been a tough century so far: 9/11, Iraq, and now this. At least we have a bright new president. He’ll give you a job painting a bridge. You may need it to keep body and soul together.
The basic story line so far is that we are all to blame, including homeowners who bit off more than they could chew, lenders who wrote absurd adjustable-rate mortgages, and greedy investment bankers.
Credit derivatives also figure heavily in the plot. Apologists say that these became so complicated that even Wall Street couldn’t understand them and that they created “an unacceptable level of risk.” Then these blowhards tell us that the bailout will pump hundreds of billions of dollars into the credit arteries and save the patient, which is the world’s financial system. It will take time—maybe a year or so—but if everyone hangs in there, we’ll be all right. No structural damage has been done, and all’s well that ends well.
Sorry, but that’s drivel. In fact, what we are living through is the worst financial scandal in history. It dwarfs 1929, Ponzi’s scheme, Teapot Dome, the South Sea Bubble, tulip bulbs, you name it. Bernie Madoff? He’s peanuts.
Credit derivatives—those securities that few have ever seen—are one reason why this crisis is so different from 1929.
Derivatives weren’t initially evil. They began as insurance policies on large loans. A bank that wished to lend money to a big, but shaky, venture, like what Ford or GM have become, could hedge its bet by buying a credit derivative to cover losses if the debtor defaulted. Derivatives weren’t cheap, but in the era of globalization and declining American competitiveness, they were prudent. Interestingly, the company that put the basic hardware and software together for pricing and clearing derivatives was Bloomberg. It was quite expensive for a financial institution—say, a bank—to get a Bloomberg machine and receive the specialized training required to certify analysts who would figure out the terms of the insurance. These Bloomberg terminals, originally called Market Masters, were first installed at Merrill Lynch in the late 1980s.
Subsequently, thousands of units have been placed in trading and financial institutions; they became the cornerstone of Michael Bloomberg’s wealth, marrying his skills as a securities trader and an electrical engineer.
It’s an open question when or if he or his company knew how they would be misused over time to devastate the world’s economy.
There is trouble coming down the pike. People will be hurt, our democracy will be endangered but we will, fitfully, find our way back to a civil society (based on citizen participation) and a real economy (based on real goods and services). The alternative to such a renewal remains too terrible to contemplate.