How the Financial Sector Grew Out of Control, and How We Can Change It
Gerald Epstein is a professor of economics and a founding co-director of the Political Economy Research Institute (PERI) at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. In April, he sat down with Dollars & Sense co-editor Alejandro Reuss to discuss major themes in his current research. This first part (in a three part series) focuses on the dramatic growth in the financial sector and the transformation from regulated “boring” banking to deregulated “roaring” banking.
Dollars & Sense: What should we be looking at as indicators that the financial sector has grown much larger in this most recent era, compared to what it used to be?
Gerald Epstein: There are a number of different indicators and dimensions to this. The size of the financial sector itself is one dimension. If you look at the profit share of banks and other financial institutions, you’ll see that in the early post-war period, up until the early 1980s, they took down about 15% of all corporate profits in the United States. Just before the crisis, in 2006, they took down 40% of all profits, which is pretty astonishing.
Another measure of size is total financial assets as a percentage of gross domestic product. If you look at the postwar period, it’s pretty constant from 1945 to 1981, with the ratio of financial assets to the size of the economy—of GDP—at about 4 to 1. But starting in 1981, it started climbing. By 2007, total financial assets were ten times the size of GDP. If you look at almost any metric about the overall size of the financial sector—credit-to-GDP ratios, debt-to-GDP ratios, etc.—you see this massive increase starting around 1981, going up to a peak just before the financial crisis, in 2006.
Two more, related, dimensions are the sizes of the biggest financial firms and the concentration of the industry. For example, the share of total securities-industry assets held by the top five investment banks was 65% in 2007. The share of the total deposits held by the top seven commercial banks went from roughly 20% in the early postwar period to over 50%. If you look at derivatives trading, you find that the top five investment banks control about 97% of that. So there’s a massive concentration in the financial system, and that hasn’t declined—in some ways, it’s gotten worse—since the financial crisis.