In my last post on private infrastructure finance and secular stagnation, I suggested a bigger argument that
The financialization of the global economy has produced a hugely costly financial sector, extracting returns that must, in the end, be taken out of the returns to investment of all kinds. The costs were hidden during the pre-crisis bubble era, but are now evident to everyone, including potential investors. So, even massively expansionary monetary policy doesn’t produce much in the way of new private investment.
This isn’t an original idea. The Bank of International Settlements put out a paper earlier this year arguing that financial sector growth crowds out real growth. But how does this work and what can be done about it?
The financial sector is an intermediary between savers and borrowers (for investment or consumption). So, the costs of running the financial sector and the profits generated in that sector must be included in the margin between the rates of return by savers and those paid by borrowers, or else they must be shifted on to society at large (for example, through bailouts or tax subsidies).
I’m still organizing my thoughts on this, so what I have are some ideas rather than a fully formed argument.
First, if the financial sector is unproductive, how can it be so large and profitable in a market economy?
There are a few possible explanations
(a) As in the official theory of efficient markets, the financial sector is actually earning its keep by allocating capital to the most productive investments, and by spreading and managing risk. I don’t see how anyone can argue this with a straight face in the light of the last 20 years of bubbles and busts.
(b) Tax evasion: the global financial sector allows corporations to greatly reduce their tax liabilities. Most of the savings in tax is captured in the financial sector itself, but the amount flowing to corporations is sufficient to offset the high costs of the modern financial sector, relative to (for example) old-style bank finance and simple corporate structures financed by debt and equity
(c) Volatility: the financialisation of the economy has produced greatly increased volatility (in exchange rates, asset prices and so on). The financial sector amplifies and profits from this volatility, partly through regulatory arbitrage, and partly through entrenched and systematic fraud as in the LIBOR and Forex scandals.
(d) Political capture: The financial sector controls political outcomes in both traditional ways (political donations, highly revolving door jobs for future and former politicians) and through the ideology of market liberalism, which is perfectly designed to support policies supporting the financial sector, while discrediting policies traditionally sought by other parts of the corporate sector, such as protection for manufacturing industry. The shift to private finance for infrastructure, discussed in the previous post is part of this. The construction part of the infrastructure sector (which was always private) has suffered from the reduced flow of projects, but the finance part (previously managed through government bonds) has benefited massively.
The result of all this is that the financial sector benefits from an evolutionary strategy similar to that of an Australian eucalypt forest. Eucalypts are both highly flammable (they generate lots of combustible oil) and highly fire resistant. So eucalypt forests are subject to frequent fires which kill competing species, and allow the eucalypts to extend their range.