Is Wall Street bad for Main Street America?
"A well-told exploration of why our current economy is leaving too many behind." —The New York Times
In looking at the forces that shaped the 2016 presidential election, one thing is clear: much of the population believes that our economic system is rigged to enrich the privileged elites at the expense of hard-working Americans. This is a belief held equally on both sides of political spectrum, and it seems only to be gaining momentum.
A key reason, says Financial Times columnist Rana Foroohar, is the fact that Wall Street is no longer supporting Main Street businesses that create the jobs for the middle and working class. She draws on in-depth reporting and interviews at the highest rungs of business and government to show how the “financialization of America”—the phenomenon by which finance and its way of thinking have come to dominate every corner of business—is threatening the American Dream.
Now updated with new material explaining how our corrupted financial system propelled Donald Trump to power, Makers and Takers explores the confluence of forces that has led American businesses to favor balance-sheet engineering over the actual kind, greed over growth, and short-term profits over putting people to work. From the cozy relationship between Wall Street and Washington, to a tax code designed to benefit wealthy individuals and corporations, to forty years of bad policy decisions, she shows why so many Americans have lost trust in the system, and why it matters urgently to us all.
Through colorful stories of both “Takers,” those stifling job creation while lining their own pockets, and “Makers,” businesses serving the real economy, Foroohar shows how we can reverse these trends for a better path forward.
|Publisher:||Crown Publishing Group|
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About the Author
Rana Foroohar was recently named global business columnist and Associate Editor for the Financial Times. She is also CNN’s global economic analyst.
Prior to joining the FT and CNN, Foroohar was for six years the assistant managing editor in charge of business and economics at TIME, as well as the magazine’s economic columnist. She also spent 13 years at Newsweek, as an economic and foreign affairs editor and a foreign correspondent covering Europe and the Middle East. During that time, she was awarded the German Marshall Fund’s Peter Weitz Prize for transatlantic reporting. She has also received awards and fellowships from institutions such as the Johns Hopkins School of International Affairs and the East West Center. She is a life member of the Council on Foreign Relations.
Foroohar graduated in 1992 from Barnard College, Columbia University. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband, the writer John Sedgwick, and her two children, Darya and Alex.
Read an Excerpt
The Rise of Finance
If there is a Godfather of modern finance, it must be Sanford “Sandy” Weill, the former CEO of one of the world’s largest financial institutions, Citigroup. A kid from Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, who grew up to become the world’s most powerful banker, he started his career with $30,000 and rose through Wall Street ranks to lead the megabank that came to epitomize the Too Big to Fail era.
The creation of Citigroupa merger between Weill’s own Travelers Group (an insurance and investment firm) and Citicorp back in 1998was a seismic moment in the story of financialization that created the planet’s biggest-ever financial conglomerate. Not only that, but it was also the nail in the coffin of Glass-Steagall, the Depression-era banking legislation that had kept consumers relatively safe from exploitation by financial interests since the 1930s. Weill called the merger “the greatest deal in the history of the financial services industry” and “the crowning of my career.”1 It was a transaction that would allow the newly formed company to offer pretty much every financial service ever invented, from credit cards to corporate IPO underwriting, high-speed trading to mortgages, investment advice to the sale of any complex security you could imagine, in 160-plus countries, twenty-four hours a day. As with the British Empire in a former era, the sun never set on Citigroup.
So it was quite a moment when, in mid-2012, the emperor had an ideological abdication. Weill, who stepped down as Citi CEO in 2003 and has recently undergone something of an existential crisis over his role in the worst financial crash in eighty years, went on CNBC and declared that pretty much everything he’d believed about the bank, and about finance, was wrong. In fact, he said, if he were to do it over again, Citigroup itself would probably never have come to be. What’s more, the business model that financial institutions have fought to preserve through billions spent on funding campaigns and lobbying Congress had saddled American depositors and taxpayers with unacceptable risks. “What we should probably do is go and split up investment banking from [commercial] banking,” Weill said. “Have banks be deposit takers. Have banks make commercial loans and real estate loans. Have banks do something that’s not going to risk the taxpayer dollars, that’s not going to be Too Big to Fail.”2
As conversions go, Weill’s was positively biblical. It came four years after a long chain of disastrous decisions by Citigroup and the rest of the Too Big to Fail banks had landed them at the epicenter of the financial crisis, with hundreds of billions of dollars of exploding securities on their books and worried customers on the verge of mass panic that threatened to throw the country into another Great Depression. The crisis ultimately required $1.59 trillion in government bailouts (and another $12 trillion worth of federal guarantees and loans) and even with that, it shaved more off the American economy than any other downturn since the 1930s.3
But that wasn’t all.
As the dust settled on the crisis and the American recovery continued to be lackluster, particularly in relation to recoveries past, some policy makers, academics, and rank-and-file consumers began to suspect that something was wrong at a deeper levelnamely, that although the financial industry had been set up to support business and to provide the liquidity that firms and individuals needed to prosper, it no longer seemed to serve that function. As Stephen Roach, the former chief economist of Morgan Stanley, put it to me in an interview right after the fall of Lehman Brothers, “finance has simply moved too far from its moorings in the real economy.”4
Indeed, as the banks got bailed out and swiftly recovered, things in the real economy grew worse. Bank profits reached record heights, yet loans to businesses and consumers shrank. Corporate earnings were high, yet few companies wanted to invest their cash in Main Street. Instead, managers beholden to the markets disgorged it mainly to rich investors and Wall Street.5 Meanwhile, America’s largest financial institutions remained as focused as ever on securities trading, the “casino” part of the banking business, since there was no reason not to be. Regulators had yetand still have yetto prohibit bankers from eschewing this more profitable type of business in favor of boring, old-fashioned lending. The very riskiest portion of the markets, derivatives trading, actually grew following the crisis. Globally, it was 20 percent bigger in late 2013 than in late 2007 (and US regulators are trying to police it with budgets that haven’t increased much since then).6
And that’s just what we can see. Shadow banking, the portion of the financial industry that remains largely unregulated (and includes hedge funds, money market funds, and financial arms of big companies like GE), has grown like kudzu: swelling by more than $1.3 trillion per year since 2011 and reaching $36 trillion today.7 Through it all, low interest rates set by the Federal Reserve, which were supposed to help individuals, ended up making the rich richer by inflating the stock market rather than improving the ability of real people to refinance their homes. (Most of the housing recovery has been led by investors, as will be covered in chapter 7.)
A Post-Traumatic Nation
Of course, plenty of people will ask why, if finance is having such a dampening effect on the economy, America is in recovery. Certainly there are several factorslike a weaker oil price, and the subsequent pickup in consumer demandthat are finally, eight years on from the crisis, driving US growth. But I would argue that these are short-term cyclical trends that canand willchange. Indeed, consumer confidence and spending continue to be volatile in the wake of the crash. As Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz put it to me in 2015, even in the midst of economic recovery American consumers remain “fragile,” almost as if they have suffered a kind of trauma. Schultz and many other executives believe that skittishness has become a generational imprint, meaning that today’s generation of American consumers, who are still counted on to fuel the world’s growth engine, may be so traumatized they can’t perform that traditional role anymore.
Meanwhile, the deep structural dysfunction in our economy, emanating from the financial system, remains in place. The size of the sector itself is still close to record highs (as measured by its share of overall employment), though that may wax and wane as the impact of digital technology on job growth becomes more pronounced. But what’s quite clear is that the reorientation of our economy toward finance and the dominance of financial thinking in daily management of nonfinancial firms have warped the way both business and society work. The sway of the markets over the real economy has skewed the playing field and created growing inequality and capture of resources at the top of the socioeconomic pyramid. It has also led to dramatic inefficiencies in resource allocation that may be a cause, rather than a symptom, of slower economic growth.8
These aren’t new observations, but rather old warnings that have been pushed aside or forgotten. The great liberal economist John Maynard Keynes, for one, worried that market capitalism might be able to function quite well without actually employing many people, particularly if money went to speculation rather than productive investment. (He called on the government to boost long-term investment through special incentives.) Other thinkers, like Hyman Minsky, Harry Magdoff, and Paul Sweezy, took that idea further, arguing that finance itself creates bubbles and draws money away from the real economy as a matter of course. As Minsky put it, “capitalism is a flawed system in that, if its development is not constrained, it will lead to periodic deep depressions and the perpetuation of poverty.”9 He also believed that the government would be forced to act as a lender of last resort during such periods, a position that would become untenable as public debt levels rose, leading to more public pressure to allow more speculation, which would unleash renewed instability, and so on. This story of a “symbiotic embrace” between finance and underlying economic malaise, one that the markets can’t stave off forever, finds resonance in the fact that every recovery of the post–World War II period has been longer and weaker than the one before.10
What’s new and important now is the growing body of data that supports these ideas. Consider the 2015 paper by BIS senior economist Enisse Kharroubi and Brandeis University professor Stephen Cecchetti, who examined how finance affected growth in fifteen countries. They found that productivitythe value that each worker creates in the economy, which, along with demographics, is basically the driver of economic progressdeclines in markets with rapidly expanding financial sectors. What’s more, the industries most likely to suffer are those, like advanced manufacturing, that are most critical for long-term growth and jobs. That’s because finance would rather invest in areas like real estate and construction, which are far less productive but offer quicker, more reliable short-term gains (as well as collateral that can be sold in crisis or securitized in boom times).11 No wonder twin booms in credit and real estate were a defining characteristic of many economies worst hit by the 2008 financial crisis.12
Government has a huge role to play in all this. Deregulation from the 1970s onward encouraged banks to move away from their traditional role of enabling investment, and toward embracing speculation. It also paved the way to the so-called shareholder revolution, which enriched investors but pushed corporations into debt and toward short-term decision making. Both trends have redirected capital to less socially useful areas of the economy and created a vicious cycle that’s increasingly difficult to break via the usual methods like monetary policy. Witness the fact that despite the $4.5 trillion the Fed injected into the economy and six years of historically low interest rates, corporations are reinvesting just 1-2 percent of their assets into Main Street.13 Much of the rest is going straight into the pockets of the richest 10 percent of the populationmostly in the form of rising asset pricesand those people are unlikely to spend as much of it as the middle and working classes would.
That our market system has been corrupted in a way that’s thwarting growth is something Adam Smith himself would have agreed with. His theory of how markets worked evolved at a time when small family-owned firms operated largely on level playing fields with equal access to information. Today financial capitalism is fraught with special interests, corporate monopolies, and an opacity that would have boggled Smith’s mind. Let me be clear: despite my criticism of our existing model of financial capitalism, this book isn’t anticapitalist. I am not in favor of a planned economy or a turn away from a market system. I simply don’t think that the system we have now is a properly functioning market system. We have a rentier economy in which a small group of vested interests take the cream off the top, to the detriment of overall growth. I agree with economists like Joseph Stiglitz, George Akerlof, Paul Volcker, and others who believe that markets prudently regulated by governments are the best guarantee of peace and prosperity the world has ever known. Until we make more progress toward that goal, we won’t have the kind of recovery we deserve.
The High Price of Complexity
The first step in this process is understanding how the financial sector, which is the pivot point for all of this, came to play such an outsize role. Finance isn’t just banking. It includes securities dealers, insurance companies, mutual funds, pension funds, hedge funds, traders, credit derivative product companies, real estate firms, structured investment vehicles, and commercial paper conduits, among others. All of them “can fit together like Russian dolls,” as Paul Tucker, the former head of markets for the Bank of England, once put it.14
Yet at the heart of all this is the Too Big to Fail bank. The very same one-stop-shop bank model that Weill once heralded as the future of the industryand of American competitivenessproved to be its downfall. Yes, customers around the world could do everything at Citi, an institution with assets implicitly underwritten by the US government, thanks to FDIC insurance and Fed protection. But that also meant that financial shocks could migrate quickly through the bank’s interconnected global operations. Not only could problems in Iceland ricochet within seconds to Iowa, but the connections themselves were too complicated even for the bank’s own risk managers, not to mention their leaders, to comprehend in real time. “Do CEOs of large, complex financial institutions today know everything that’s on their balance sheet? It’s not possible to know,” former Goldman Sachs partner and former head of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission Gary Gensler told me in 2014. “There are just too many things going on for their operations now in the markets for them to know.”15
1. Sandy Weill, with Judah S. Kraushaar, The Real Deal: My Life in Business and Philanthropy (New York: Hachette Book Group, 2006), 300 and 316.
2. “Wall Street Legend Weill: Breaking Up Big Banks,” CNBC, July 25, 2012.
3. Estimate by Princeton economist Alan Blinder and Moody’s Analytics economist Mark Zandi in “How the Great Recession Was Brought to an End,” July 27, 2010,www.economy.com.
4. Rana Foroohar, “A New Age of Global Capitalism Starts Now,” Newsweek, October 3, 2008.
5. Author interviews with William Lazonick; Mason, “Disgorge the Cash.”
6. The Bank for International Settlements reports that the global derivatives market was about $586 trillion in December 2007 and about $710 trillion in December 2013. See BIS Statistics Explorer, “Table D5.1: Global OTC derivatives market” (the values are for “notional amounts outstanding”).
7. Financial Stability Board, global shadow banking monitoring reports for respective years and a statistical annex published in 2012 (“Global Shadow Banking Monitoring Report 2012,” Exhibits 2-1, 2-2, and 2-3, November 18, 2012).
8. Turbeville, “Financialization & Equal Opportunity.”
9. Hyman P. Minsky, “Hyman P. Minsky (1919-1996),” autobiographical article originally written in 1992, in Philip Arestis and Malcolm Sawyer, eds., A Biographical Dictionary of Dissenting Economists (Northampton, MA: Edward Elgar, 2000), 416, quoted in John Bellamy Foster and Fred Magdoff, The Great Financial Crisis: Causes and Consequences (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2009), 17.
10. The concept of a “symbiotic embrace,” a phrase that initially appeared in a BusinessWeek editorial in 1985, is discussed in Harry Magdoff and Paul M. Sweezy, Stagnation and the Financial Explosion (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1987). For a comparison of American economic recoveries since the 1960s, see Drew Desilver, “Five Years in, Recovery Still Underwhelms Compared with Previous Ones,” Pew Research Center, June 23, 2014.
11. Cecchetti and Kharroubi, “Why Does Financial Sector Growth Crowd Out Real Economic Growth?”
12. International Monetary Fund, “Housing Finance and Real-Estate Booms: A Cross-Country Perspective,” by Eugenio Cerutti, Jihad Dagher, and Giovanni Dell’Ariccia, Staff Discussion Note 15/12, June 2015.
13. Mason, “Disgorge the Cash,” 32.
14. Paul Tucker, “A Perspective on Recent Monetary and Financial System Developments,” speech at the Bank of England, April 26, 2007.
15. Author interview with Gensler for this book.
Table of Contents
Author's Note ix
Chapter 1 The Rise of Finance 29
Chapter 2 The Fall of Business 62
Bean Counters Versus Car Guys-Frederick Winslow Taylor, Robert McNamara, and the Financialization of Industry
Chapter 3 What an MBA Won't Teach You 90
How Business Education Is Failing American Businesses
Chapter 4 Barbarians at the Gate 121
Apple, Carl Icahn, and the Rise of Shareholder Activism
Chapter 5 We're All Bankers Now 152
GE and the Story of How American Business Came to Emulate Finance
Chapter 6 Financial Weapons of Mass Destruction 179
Commodities, Derivatives, and How Wall Street Created a Food Crisis
Chapter 7 When Wall Street Owns Main Street 210
Private Equity, Shadow Banking, and How Finance Reaped the Benefits of the Housing Recovery
Chapter 8 The End of Retirement 237
How Wall Street Ate Our Nest Eggs
Chapter 9 The Artful Dodgers 264
How Our Tax Code Rewards the Takers Instead of the Makers
Chapter 10 The Revolving Door 285
How Washington Favors Wall Street over Main Street
Chapter 11 How to Put Finance Back in Service to Business and Society 315