"Anything too big to fail is too big to exist." So writes Simon Johnson in "The Quiet Coup," an important, provocative piece in the May issue of The Atlantic.
We think that's pretty much the line of the year, and it points to the importance of bringing financial institutions--and, in some ways, finance itself--back down to a more appropriate size. "The Obama administration's fiscal stimulus evokes FDR," Johnson writes, "but what we need to imitate here is Teddy Roosevelt's trust-busting."
How did we get here? This is just the beginning:
In its depth and suddenness, the U.S. economic and financial crisis is shockingly reminiscent of moments we have recently seen in emerging markets (and only in emerging markets): South Korea (1997), Malaysia (1998), Russia and Argentina (time and again). In each of those cases, global investors, afraid that the country or its financial sector wouldn't be able to pay off mountainous debt, suddenly stopped lending. And in each case, that fear became self-fulfilling, as banks that couldn't roll over their debt did, in fact, become unable to pay. This is precisely what drove Lehman Brothers into bankruptcy on September 15, causing all sources of funding to the U.S. financial sector to dry up overnight. Just as in emerging-market crises, the weakness in the banking system has quickly rippled out into the rest of the economy, causing a severe economic contraction and hardship for millions of people.
But there's a deeper and more disturbing similarity: elite business interests--financiers, in the case of the U.S.--played a central role in creating the crisis, making ever-larger gambles, with the implicit backing of the government, until the inevitable collapse. More alarming, they are now using their influence to prevent precisely the sorts of reforms that are needed, and fast, to pull the economy out of its nosedive. The government seems helpless, or unwilling, to act against them.
Top investment bankers and government officials like to lay the blame for the current crisis on the lowering of U.S. interest rates after the dotcom bust or, even better--in a "buck stops somewhere else" sort of way--on the flow of savings out of China. Some on the right like to complain about Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac, or even about longer-standing efforts to promote broader homeownership. And, of course, it is axiomatic to everyone that the regulators responsible for "safety and soundness" were fast asleep at the wheel.
But these various policies--lightweight regulation, cheap money, the unwritten Chinese-American economic alliance, the promotion of homeownership--had something in common. Even though some are traditionally associated with Democrats and some with Republicans, they all benefited the financial sector. Policy changes that might have forestalled the crisis but would have limited the financial sector's profits--such as Brooksley Born's now-famous attempts to regulate credit-default swaps at the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, in 1998--were ignored or swept aside.
Read it all. Please.
Simon Johnson, "The Quiet Coup," The Atlantic, May, 2009