From “Boring” Banking to “Roaring” Banking, Part 1

How the Financial Sector Grew Out of Control, and How We Can Change It

Gerald Epstein

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.

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US Senate Approves Fast Track Authority, and Krugman Doesn’t

Matías Vernengo


The Senate approved fast track for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), giving Obama authority to negotiate. It has to be approved by Congress still. On this topic, it is interesting that it is the first time Krugman came out (or here), as a closet ‘protectionist’, and was against a Free Trade Agreement (FTA). Note that the reason for his Sveriges Riksbank Prize (aka Nobel) was: “his analysis of trade patterns and location of economic activity.”

His contribution to the analysis of trade patterns was essentially to introduce imperfect competition in the mainstream trade model. And actually what introducing imperfect competition in the mainstream Heckscher–Ohlin-Samuelson (HOS) model (the limitations of that model were discussed here before) did was to suggest that under certain circumstances trade management might be a good idea. He edited later a book, Strategic Trade Policy and the New International Economics, in which some more vocal defenders of trade intervention were present (I’m thinking of Laura d’Andrea Tyson, and John Zysman, at least at that time, in the early 1990s).

But he remained committed to free trade (he wanted the ‘Nobel’ badly, is my guess).

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Mapping Environmental Injustice

Race, class and industrial air pollution

Klara Zwickl, Michael Ash, and James K. Boyce

America’s corporate polluters are not color-blind. Nor are they oblivious to distinctions of class. Studies of environmental inequality have shown that minorities and low-income communities often bear disproportionate pollution burdens (for overviews, see Ringquist 2005 and  Mohai et al. 2006). In other words, rather than being an impersonal “externality” randomly distributed across the population, the distribution of pollution mirrors the distribution of power and wealth.

These disparities result from decisions by firms to site hazardous facilities in the most vulnerable communities and from decisions by government regulators to put lower priority on environmental enforcement in these communities. To some extent, the disparities may also reflect demographic changes as pollution leads affluent people to move out, neighborhood property values to fall, and poorer households to move in. But even after controlling for income differences, racial and ethnic minorities typically face higher pollution burdens, a finding that implies that disparities are a result of differences in political power as well as purchasing power (Boyce 2007).

But the US is a big country, and it is not homogenous. Electoral politics, social movements, industrial structure, residential segregation, and even laws and regulations differ greatly across the regions. The extent and pattern of environmental inequalities may vary, too.

In a recent study (Zwickl et al. 2014), we examine regional variations to tackle two key questions. First, is minority status or income more important in explaining environmental disparities? Second, is higher income equally protective for whites and minorities in affecting pollution exposure?

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What We’re Writing, What We’re Reading

What We’re Writing

Gerald Epstein, Banks: How Big is Too Big?

Ali Kadri, Ancient to Modern Mashriq

What We’re Reading

Reforming the Future: Lessons from Sovereign Debt Restructuring, Atlantic Council

Prabhat Patnaik, Misconceptions About Neo-Liberalism

Jomo Kwame Sundaram and Vladimir Popov, Income Inequalities in Perspective

Triple Crisis welcomes your comments. Please share your thoughts below.

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China-Latin America Economic Bulletin

Rebecca Ray and Kevin Gallagher

This post summarizes the key findings in the second annual China-Latin America Economic Bulletin, co-authored by Rebecca Ray and regular Triple Crisis contributor Kevin Gallagher. Issued by the Global Economic Governance Initiative at Boston University, the full report is available here. (Note that graphs and tables below are numbered as in the original report.)

This China-Latin America Economic Bulletin is the second annual note summarizing and synthesizing trends in the burgeoning China-Latin America economic relationship.

The goal of the bulletin is to provide analysts and observers handy reference to the ever-changing landscape of China-Latin America economic relations, a landscape where data is not always as readily accessible.

Highlights from this year’s edition include:

China surpassed the United States as most the important destination for South American exports. LAC exports as a whole to China grew to US $112 billion in 2013 (a record 2.0% of regional GDP), though the region still had a trade deficit of 0.5% of GDP with China that year.

Ray and Gallagher 1

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History Repeats as Farce: Giving Away Land Without Consultation in Mozambique

Timothy A. Wise

In late April 2015, the Mozambican government began a process of community consultations on the grand ProSAVANA land project in the country’s coastal Nacala Corridor, widely denounced as a “land grab” by opponents. Those consultations were immediately repudiated by community members, who said the meetings violated a host of Mozambican laws on access to information and consultation with affected communities.

Most egregiously, perhaps, the consultations came, not in advance of the project, but fully six years after Brazilian investors first heard the plan’s pitch, two years after the project leaked to the general public, and at a time when land conflicts are erupting across the Nacala Corridor.

Now, ProSAVANA’s controversial history is repeating itself as farce. The Mozambique Council of Ministers is considering a massive project along the Lurio River in northern Mozambique without consulting the estimated 500,000 affected people in the project area.

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Land Reform, Part II

The Economic and Socio-Political Cases for Land Reform

By Jawied Nawabi, Guest Blogger

Jawied Nawabi is a professor of economics and sociology at CUNY Bronx Community College and a member of the Dollars & Sense collective.

This is the second part of a two-part series. The first installment discussed conventional approaches to the agrarian sector in economic-development theory and policy, and their failings. This concluding installment focuses on the socio-economic case for land reform, and it role in successful economic development experiences. Originally published in the May/June 2015 issue of Dollars & Sense magazine.

There are two broad arguments for the importance of land reform. The first is based on the widely observed inverse relationship between farm size and output per unit of land area: smaller farms produce more per acre of land than larger farms. Smaller land holdings are more productive and ecologically sustainable for a number of reasons:

1) Higher labor intensity. Small farmers use more labor per unit of land, which helps generate more output and more employment per unit.

2) Higher multiple cropping. They grow more crops per year on a given piece of land.

3) Higher intensity of cultivation. Small farmers leave a lower proportion of land fallow or uncultivated. In addition, they cultivate crops that are higher value-added per unit of land.

4) Lower negative environmental impacts. Small farms use fertilizers, pesticides, and other agrochemicals more sparingly than large farms. This reduces negative impacts of harmful chemicals on workers and neighbors. Small farmers, overall, have a greater incentive to employ environmentally sustainable techniques than large industrial ones.

While the economic case for land reform can be construed as a narrow technical argument on how best to boost agricultural productivity—which land-reform opponents could argue is unnecessary due to the advent of the Green Revolution—the socio-political argument is aimed against this kind of narrow technical thinking. The importance of a land reform is in changing the hierarchical structure of agrarian class relations while increasing productivity. The idea is to break the power of landlords, who keep peasants as a captive labor force in rural areas and act as a conservative political force at the local and national levels of the state.

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The Bursting of China’s Housing Bubble

C.P. Chandrasekhar and Jayati Ghosh

A significant part of China’s recent recovery and boom after the Global Financial Crisis was driven by construction and real estate. As the economy slowed down, it was obvious that these sectors would also decelerate. But the slowdown in real estate has been much sharper, and now threatens a new front that could further add to the economic dilemmas facing the Chinese government.

For it seems that the property bubble is clearly over in China, at least for the time being. Real estate prices in many Chinese cities have been falling continuously for at least seven months, despite several rounds of quantitative easing and various policy measures designed to boost the market. According to the National Bureau of Statistics, total property sales in China fell by 7.6 percent in 2014. New land purchases by developers fell by 31.7 per cent year-on-year in the first two months of 2015.

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A Way Out for Greece and Europe

Keynes’ Advice from the 1940s

Marie Christine Duggan, Guest Blogger

Marie Christine Duggan is a professor of economics at Keene State College in New Hampshire. In this article, originally published in the May/June 2015 issue of Dollars & Sense magazine, she argues that the kinds of system proposed by Keynes for adjustment to international imbalances in the 1940s would represent a way out of crisis for Greece and Europe today.

Is there a way for Greece to honor its debts without impoverishing its people? Most people see only two ways out of the current crisis: Either Greece services its debts, and the wealth gap between creditor and debtor nations in Europe rises; or Greece defaults, and the European banking system is forced to write-down its assets by the value of the Greek IOUs. However, there is a third way: creditors could promise to spend the money they receive from Greece (in the form of debt service payments) on Greek imports or on long-term for-profit investments in Greece. This third way involves re-aligning institutional incentives so that the creditors only gain when the debtors themselves grow.

Problems like those Greece faces are not new. And, in fact, the best solutions are not new either. During the Second World War, Britain faced a similar situation of trade deficits coupled with a cut-off of international credit. John Maynard Keynes devised a solution which did not impose all the burdens on the debtors by reducing wages. Instead, it would not be just debtor countries—but also creditor countries—that would have to “adjust.” The creditors would have to spend their surpluses (rather than building up reserves), allowing the debtors, in turn, to grow their economies and pay back their debts. Dependence on the fickle whim of the foreign investor is the story line that unites the post-war British context with that of Greece today. In another similarity, the subtext for Greece, since it joined the eurozone in 2001, has been the need to increase its productive capacity and infrastructure so that its products—priced in euros—are produced efficiently enough to compete with those from other eurozone countries. A solution like the one Keynes proposed for Britain towards the end of the war would offer Greece the best way out today.

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Land Reform

Part I: A Precondition for Sustainable Economic Development

By Jawied Nawabi, Guest Blogger

This is the first part of a two-part series. This installment discusses conventional approaches to the agrarian sector in economic-development theory and policy, and their failings. Part II, to be posted next week, focuses on the socio-economic case for land reform, and it role in successful economic development experiences. Originally published in the May/June 2015 issue of Dollars & Sense magazine.

It is in the agricultural sector that the battle for long-term economic development will be won or lost. —Gunnar Myrdal

The phrase “land reform” often conjures up memories, for those leaning right, of frightening extreme-left ideologies. On the progressive left, meanwhile, land reform is often treated as a passé topic.

With the advent of rising inequality, climate change, weak government institutions, failed states, terrorism, corruption, and a whole slew of other socio-economic problems—sown or exacerbated by three decades of neoliberal policies in the “developing world” (Global South)—it is high time we revisit the issue of land reform. We need to bring it back to the center of the discussion on sustainable economic development. Land reform is not political extremism; rather, it is a critical policy mechanism for the world to address issues of poverty, hunger, urban slums, and good governance.

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