Ideas 2011 July/August 2011

The 14 Biggest Ideas of the Year

A guide to the intellectual trends that, for better or worse, are shaping America right now. (Plus a bunch of other ideas, insights, hypotheses, and provocations.)

6. Wall Street: Same as It Ever Was

Felix Salmon
Finance blogger, Reuters

The warning signs were there. In the decades before the financial world fell apart in 2008, what had been a great many small and diverse intermediaries merged and grew into a few global powerhouses. The new behemoths of finance were generally far too big to manage: with their trillion-dollar balance sheets and cellars full of assets that no one understood, they were a disaster waiting to happen.

These institutions were, literally, too big to fail. Lehman Brothers was one of the smallest, and its bankruptcy forced governments around the world to carry out formerly unthinkable emergency actions just to keep the global economy from completely collapsing. The cost of the bailout ran into the trillions, and unemployment rose as high as 10.1 percent; we can probably never recover fully from the crisis. The ingredients that spelled disaster were simple: bigness, interconnectedness, and profitability.

Big banks, by their nature, are much more systemically dangerous than smaller ones—just imagine the cost to the federal government if it had to cover all the deposits at, say, Bank of America. Lehman is a prime example of the dangers of interconnectedness: because every major bank did a lot of business with the firm every day, the chaos when it suddenly collapsed was impossible to contain, and rapidly spread globally in devastating and unpredictable fashion.

And great profitability, of course, is as good a proxy for risk as any. If someone tells you that he can make huge profits, year in and year out, without taking on big risks, then he’s probably Bernie Madoff.

As of now, not only have we failed to fix these three problems, but we’ve made them all worse. The big banks are bigger than ever, after having swallowed up their failed competitors. (Merrill Lynch, for example, is now a subsidiary of Bank of America; don’t believe for a minute that BofA’s senior management or board of directors has a remotely adequate understanding of the risks that Merrill is taking.)

Interconnectedness, too, has increased. With the bailout came a deluge of liquidity, courtesy of Ben Bernanke: the Fed bailout was tantamount to dropping billions of $100 bills from helicopters over Lower Manhattan. That money got spent on financial assets—that was the whole point—and as a result, financial assets started moving in conjunction with one another. If my shares are rising, your shares are almost certainly rising too. And your commodities, and your municipal bonds, and your Old Master paintings. Because of this increase in financial correlation, if and when another crisis hits, it will be uncontrollable: it’s certain to strike absolutely everything, all at once. And though some people think Congress can simply regulate the problems away, there’s no way to legislate solutions to problems that are endemic to our financial system.

Meanwhile, Wall Street pay is back at record highs—that didn’t take long—and the financial industry once again accounts for more than 30 percent of U.S. corporate profits. This doesn’t look like low-margin utility banking, where you take a small fee for matching buyers and sellers, borrowers and lenders. Beware. This is big-money gambling, back with a vengeance, and riskier than ever.

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