Wednesday, March 6, 2013

The battle against finance capitalism heats up

When Veblen postulated that the most important class distinction was between business (the Predators) and industry (the Producers), he probably had no idea that some day, the animus against the Über-Predators would spawn something that resembles a social movement.  Yet even now the bankers are wondering—why us?  After all, they argue, Steve Jobs was a billionaire and a jerk and the world treated him as a cultural hero when he died.

Well, banksters, the answer is quite simple:  You cost WAY too much and your contribution to the advancement of civilization is nearly zero—when it isn't actually negative (which is most of the time).  Worst of all, your wretched excess isn't even entertaining—which is perhaps the greatest crime of all.  You are ugly people who chose a profession with the credibility of astrology (Adams), whose imaginations are so stunted, you actually believe that widespread artificially-induced privation is a good idea and will use your considerable powers to achieve that outcome while paying yourselves at rates beyond the dreams of unbridled avarice.

What's not to hate?

Excess Under Siege: Europe Gains Momentum against Corporate Greed

By Stefan Simons and Carsten Volkery in Paris and London

Moves to contain salary excesses in big business by the EU and Switzerland have emboldened social democrats across Europe, who are calling for battle against greed in a financial world "gone wild."

Times are tough for Europe's top earners. Last week, the European Union agreed to introduce a cap on bankers' bonuses in a crackdown that will affect several thousand bankers in London alone. Then, this weekend in Switzerland voters handed shareholders a say on board and executive salaries in a bid to avoid exorbitant pay hikes.

These two decisions reflect a new mood currently sweeping the Continent. The skyrocketing pay of CEOs and boardmembers in various sectors was once seen as an inevitable byproduct of market economies, but it is no longer acceptable. Now, not even the suggestion that public disgust is rooted in envy holds sway with critics.

Across Europe, left-leaning politicians have welcomed the news from Brussels and Bern. "Long live the Swiss!" said Harlem Desir, leader of the French Socialists in an interview with broadcaster "France Info." The referendumin Switzerland marked a step in the same direction as the new cap on bonuses, which France had long been pushing for in Brussels, he said. "It is all part of the fight against a financial world that has gone wild, and can no longer be allowed to impose its own rules on the economy."

In Germany, the opposition Social Democrats were equally jubilant. Center-left Social Democratic Party deputy parliamentary floor leader Joachim Poss said that Germany should further tighten the cap on bonuses approved by the EU and extend it to other sectors, arguing that new laws inspired by the Swiss referendum were needed to curb soaring executive pay.

The days when resistance to astronomical CEO salaries was frowned upon even among Social Democrats are long over. In the 1990s, the party was keen to shed its working-class image and distribution of wealth was dismissed as old-fashioned. Modernizers such as former British Prime Minister Tony Blair and his German counterpart Gerhard Schröder set about lowering marginal tax rates and sought to curry favor with the captains of industry. "(We) are intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich -- as long as they pay their taxes," said Peter Mandelson, a British Labour Party politician, who served in a number of Cabinet positions under Blair and was a key architect in the rebranding of the Labour Party as "New Labour."

The Times Are Changing

Now it is suddenly acceptable again for the state to interfere in questions of salary. "We need stronger rules against salary excesses in Germany too," says Green party parliamentarian Gerhard Schick, who focuses on financial market issues. Meanwhile, France's Socialist President François Hollande has been undeterred in his fight for a super tax. His planned 75 percent tax on incomes over €1 million was ruled unconstitutional by the country's top court, but he now plans to amend the measure. Paris is said to be considering a tax of 65 percent on married couples who earn more than €2 million in combined income.

Even in Britain's laissez-faire economy the times are changing. Mandelson's philosophy is outdated, says Olaf Cramme, director of Policy Network, a think tank sympathetic to his center-left Labour Party. Labour's leader Ed Miliband is a "Continental European Social Democrat" with fundamental sympathies for bonus caps and the redistribution of wealth, he says. But these aren't positions he's ready to reveal to voters just yet.

The Labour Party is caught in a quandary. The bankers' reputations may be just as bad in Britain as they are on the Continent, but the financial industry is an important economic driver and employer. Any attack on the City of London financial district is branded as unpatriotic, so the party has held back in the European debate over bonus caps.

Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne, the Conservative cabinet minister responsible for economic and financial matters, wants to question the new bankers' bonus cap once again when EU finance minister meet on Tuesday. But this is nothing more than a dutiful critique of the compromise already reached by the European Parliament, the European Commission and the rotating Irish EU presidency. No one expects anything more than cosmetic changes -- not even the British Bankers' Association. more
This one is great.  If bankers are a negative on the economy, then the more there are of them, the more damage they do.  Gut the industrial muscle of the USA midwest and then build an art gallery to show your civic-mindedness?—yup, nothing harmful about that idea. (sigh)

Having Too Many Bankers Is Bad For The Economy

Matt Phillips, Quartz | Mar. 4, 2013

In urging would-be do-gooders to head to Wall Street in a recent article for Quartz, ethicist William MacAskill argues that by making a lot of money and then donating it, young people can actually do more to improve the world than by toiling in the low-paid vineyards of the non-profit sector:

Annual salaries in banking or investment start at $80,000 and grow to over $500,000 if you do well. A lifetime salary of over $10 million is typical. Careers in nonprofits start at about $40,000, and don’t typically exceed $100,000, even for executive directors. Over a lifetime, a typical salary is only about $2.5 million. By entering finance and donating 50% of your lifetime earnings, you could pay for two nonprofit workers in your place—while still living on double what you would have if you’d chosen that route.

Brooke Allen’s riposte counters that any philanthropist/banker eager to “save the world” would have to be sure that his contributions to charity aren’t offset by damage he does while carrying out his day job.

From our perspective, it also matters what kind of banking system our imaginary saintly bankers would be joining. If the system is dangerously large, the risks of doing damage to the economy would be higher, and perhaps they would have to up charitable contributions a bit more to offset the deleterious impact of participating in the banking system. This working paper (pdf, p. 14) from the Bank for International Settlements hammers on the point that big banking systems can be bad for growth:

There comes a point where further enlargement of the financial system can reduce real growth. Second, financial sector growth is found to be a drag on productivity growth. Our interpretation is that because the financial sector competes with the rest of the economy for scarce resources, financial booms are not, in general, growth-enhancing. This evidence, together with recent experience during the financial crisis, leads us to conclude that there is a pressing need to reassess the relationship of finance and real growth in modern economic systems. More finance is definitely not always better.

Why is that? Aren’t we told again and again that capital is the key to economic growth? To an extent, yes. But if there are too many bankers and too little real economy, it means there’s not enough quality business to go around. As a result, banks make a dash for the bottom, lending more to riskier borrowers, or operating on skimpier amounts of capital. (Or both!) Without enough capital, banks get jittery about declaring when loans go bad. So instead, they “evergreen” them, pushing out the payback dates, which helps them look healthier but creates an unhealthy banking system and clogs up capital in struggling companies.

In fairness, MacAskill isn’t arguing that society needs more bankers. He’s just saying that those who do become bankers can do a lot of good if they give some of their pay to charity. That’s true. But Allen is also right to point out that a banking system—even if it’s populated with altruistic financiers—can do its share of harm. more
This is from The Economist (yes that Economist).  This article was probably written to deflect criticism from the big money boys in the City who backstop them financially, but it isn't wrong.  Greedy shareholders are also a threat to the real economy.  Banksters do not hold a monopoly of Predatory behavior.  As Veblen taught, they constitute a whole class.

Shareholders Gone Wild Are Destroying The Economy

The Economist | Mar. 2, 2013

COMPANIES are the building blocks of the modern world. America has some 6m of them employing 120m people and controlling $30 trillion-worth of assets. Emerging markets are catching up: the number of Chinese companies increased by 80% in 2004-08. Globally 3m new firms are registered each year.

But are companies so good for the world? Enron and Lehman Brothers were not. Corporate debacles have scorched the global economy: the IMF calculates that the financial crisis produced total bank losses of $2 trillion. They have also led to a collapse of trust in business: a recent survey of trust in the professions found that businessmen and bankers came last, along with politicians.

Why have so many prominent companies gone up in flames? In a new book, "Firm Commitment", Colin Mayer, of Oxford University's Saïd Business School, takes a familiar argument--that shareholders have too much power--and gives it new life. The idea that the main function of companies is to boost shareholder value rests on a misunderstanding of the nature of the firm, he says. Companies are not owned by shareholders in the way that ordinary goods are owned. They are artificial persons with a distinct legal identity. Companies are not just devices for lowering transaction costs or bundling contracts together. They are devices for getting groups of people--workers and managers as well as investors--to commit themselves to long-term goals.

The doctrine of shareholder primacy is particularly dangerous when combined with dispersed ownership, he believes. Dispersed ownership (which often occurs when founding families sell shares to finance growth) leads to a separation between ownership and control. Managers exploit this separation to feather their own nests. Owners respond by relying on two devices--shareholder activism or the market for corporate control.

Mr Mayer concedes that dispersed shareholding produces benefits. It provides companies with liquidity, extends the role of professional managers and limits the ability of founding families to mess things up. But he worries that the costs are also mounting. The risk of a hostile takeover often reduces a company's incentive to invest for the long-term. The temptation to trade firms rather than build them can hollow out even great institutions: witness the demise of Britain's once-mighty General Electric Company (GEC). The ease with which traders can buy and sell shares means the fate of companies can be determined by people with no stake in their long-term success. Roger Carr, the chairman of Cadbury, a British food firm bought by Kraft after a bloody takeover battle, noted that "individuals controlling shares which they had owned for only a few days or weeks determined the destiny of a company that had been built over almost 200 years."

Can anything be done to limit the damage done by such predatory behaviour? Mr Mayer thinks corporate social responsibility (CSR) is just hot air unless it changes the financial incentives of people who run companies. He worries that government regulation, at best, treats diverse organisations as if they are the same and, at worst, does more harm than good: the Bubble Act of 1720, introduced after the collapse of the South Sea Company, delayed the development of the joint-stock company by over a century. more

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