William K. Black, Guest Blogger

This interview with William K. Black (University of Missouri-Kansas City) appeared originally at The Real News Network. Prof. Black describes why the U.S. Department of Justice has failed to prosecute executives at financial institutions that helped to detonate the recent crisis. It is not, Black argues, that the bankers were engaged in “rocket science” too complex to prosecute, but that the lack of prosecutions is “a matter of will and a matter of ideology.” His writings on this and other subjects can be read at New Economic Perspectives.

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By Jesse Griffiths, Guest Blogger

Jesse Griffiths is the director of Eurodad, European Network on Debt and Development.

The communiqué from this weekend’s G20 finance ministers’ meeting in Cairns tried to paper over increasingly evident cracks in the global economy, trumpeted an OECD initiative to reduce tax dodging which is not as good as it seems, continued to focus on privately funded infrastructure, and suggested G20 impotence in tackling big problems including too-big-to-fail banks and global governance reform.

The global economy: fragile and faltering

The G20 cannot hide the continued high levels of fragility, huge unemployment, and glaring inequality that continue to characterise the global economic situation. The finance ministers’ communiqué notes that, “the global economy still faces persistent weaknesses in demand, and supply side constraints hamper growth.” Recent reports that companies are buying their own stocks at record rates, helping stock market bubbles build rather than investing for future growth, is one reason the ministers “are mindful of the potential for a build-up of excessive risk in financial markets,” though they promise no new measures to tackle this.

Instead, their response has been to trumpet the promise they made in Sydney earlier in the year to “develop new measures that aim to lift our collective GDP by more than 2 per cent by 2018.” They get the seal of approval from the IMF and OECD’s “preliminary analysis, ” which, at three pages long, has so little detail it is impossible to assess its accuracy. Interestingly, according to the crystal ball gazing that inevitably characterises such attempts to assess global impacts of national policy changes, “product market reforms aimed at increasing productivity are the largest contributor to raising GDP,” which appears to largely mean changes in trade policies in emerging markets. The next biggest impact comes from public infrastructure investment commitments – highlighting the problems with the G20’s focus on private investments in infrastructure, discussed below.

Brief reference is made to the problem that dominated the G20 Finance Ministers’ meeting in February: developing countries’ concern about how the gradual ending of quantitative easing and possible future rises in interest rates in the developed world will affect capital inflows and outflows, which can create huge problems for them. The rich countries that dominate the G20 cannot offer more than the promise to be “mindful of the impacts on the global economy as [monetary] policy settings are recalibrated.”

Despite the fact that Argentina – currently fighting a rearguard action to prevent a US court ruling from undermining a decade of debt restructuring – has a seat on the G20, the issue of permanent mechanisms to deal with debt crises continues to be off the table. Instead it was picked up by the UN, which passed a resolution in September to negotiate a “multilateral legal framework for sovereign debt restructuring,” which could be a game changer for how sovereign debts are managed, offering the possibility of preventing and resolving debt crises: a consistent plague for many countries and a huge problem for the global economy.

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Anton Woronczuk of The Real News Network interviews regular Triple Crisis contributor Gerald Epstein, co-director of the Political Economy Research Institute (PERI) and professor of economics at the University of Massachusetts. Epstein argues that, on the fourth anniversary of the passage of the Dodd-Frank financial reform law, which was intended to rein in certain kinds of risky financial practices, implementation is going “much more slowly than one would have hoped.” The United States will need both a more complete implementation of Dodd-Frank and more far reaching regulation, Epstein concludes, to prevent the kinds of financial risk-taking that detonated the global economic crisis.

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Nikhil Rao, Juan Montecino, and Gerald Epstein

At the onset of the global financial crisis, many financial institutions that engaged in risky practices were on the verge of bankruptcy as the housing market crashed. Top regulators soon discovered that shocks suffered by large banks spread quickly throughout the financial system and then to the whole economy. Those large firms, colloquially dubbed “too big to fail,” were also highly interconnected. Jane D’Arista, James Crotty, and a few other economists had identified these inter-connections, but most economists and policy makers had remained clueless.

As the crisis worsened, Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke, New York Fed President Timothy Geithner and others tried to come to grips with what was happening. They started referring to Citibank, Bank of America, Goldman Sachs and other banks as “systemically important,” though former regulator Bill Black more aptly referred to them as “systemically dangerous”. A systemically important/dangerous institution is one that is so large and well-connected to other firms that shocks it suffers are transmitted to many other participants in that system. When these systemically important firms were failing, taxpayers bore the brunt of the impact as the government was compelled to inject massive amounts of taxpayer funds, or face massive economic losses, damages, and inefficiencies. This, of course, gave rise to the now well-known problem of moral hazard, where actors that do not directly bear the costs of risks are incentivized to pile on more risk. Taking into account the potential effects of systemically important firms, it is easy to understand why they can be closely associated with institutions that are “too big to fail.”

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Costas Lapavitsas, Guest Blogger

The interview below is from a series on The Real News Network’s Reality Asserts Itself, with Paul Jay. Jay interviews Costas Lapavitsas, professor of economics at the School of Asian and Oriental Studies, University of London, and author of the book Profiting Without Producing: How Finance Exploits Us All (Verso). Lapavitsas recently did an interview with Triple Crisis blog and Dollars & Sense magazine, serialized here (part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4).

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Doug Orr, Guest Blogger

In his article “The Big Casino,” in the latest issue of Dollars & Sense magazine, economist Doug Orr notes the recent attention—thanks largely to Michael Lewis’ celebrated book Flash Boys: A Wall Street Revolt—to high-speed stock trading. Lewis tells a story in which the problem goes no deeper than the rigging of the stock-market game to favor some players over others. (It is a measure of the superficiality of Lewis’ analysis that the solution on offer, and the objective of the story’s heroes, is to set up a different kind of casino!) “The problem with the stock market is not just that the casino game has been rigged to favor some gamblers,” Orr argues. “More fundamentally, the problem is the existence of the casino in the first place.”

Gamblers at a blackjack table know they will occasionally lose. But if they see a player who can take his bets off the table if he is losing and can take part of every pot as well, they will be very upset. This is why Michael Lewis’ book Flash Boys: A Wall Street Revolt, which describes how high-frequency traders are able to “frontrun” the market, has raised such a furor in the business press. Gamblers like playing the game, but not if the game is rigged. When they finally find out how it is rigged they will protest loudly.

On April 3, in reaction to the revelations in Flash Boys, brokerage-firm founder Charles R. “Chuck” Schwab issued a statement calling high-speed trading a “growing cancer” that threatens to destroy faith in the fairness of the markets. Schwab pointed out that while the total number of trades stayed relatively flat from 2007 to 2013, the number of trade inquires rose from 50,000 per second to 300,000 per second! He called this “an explosion of head-fake ephemeral orders” designed to “skim pennies off the public markets by the billions.” He claimed that “high-frequency trading isn’t providing more efficient, liquid markets,” but rather it is “picking the pockets of legitimate market participants.” He pointed out that some high-frequency traders claim to be profitable on over 99% of their trading days, a statistical impossibility unless the game is rigged.

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Bill Black, Guest Blogger

Sharmini Peries of The Real News Network interviews Bill Black, associate professor of economics and law at the University of Missouri-Kansas City and the author of The Best Way to Rob a Bank Is to Own One. Black discusses twin news events showing how big banks have been “caught red-handed committing frauds” and yet no government action in the United States has been undertaken to prosecute “any of the Wall Street elites whose frauds actually drove the crisis.”

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Robert Pollin, Guest Blogger

Jessica Desvarieux of The Real News Network interviews Robert Pollin, professor of economics at the University of Massachusetts and co-director of the Political Economy Research Institute (PERI), about a new Congressional Budget Office (CBO) report showing the U.S. fiscal deficit returning to historic norms. Pollin argues that the report confirms that the surge in the deficit after the financial crisis and recession was largely cyclical, that the report debunks the views of economists who claimed that high fiscal deficits would lead to economic disaster, and that it undermines arguments for austerity policies. He concludes that cuts to social spending should be reversed, and spending programs to be funded by progressive taxation like a financial-transactions tax.

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This is the third part of a four-part interview with Costas Lapavitsas, author of Financialised Capitalism: Expansion and Crisis (Maia Ediciones, 2009) and Profiting Without Producing: How Finance Exploits Us All (Verso, 2014). This part considers financialization in relation, first, with industrial and commercial enterprise and, second, with the household. It then turns to the main consequences of financialization, in terms of economic stability, development, and inequality. (See the earlier parts of the interview here and here.)

Costas Lapavitsas, Guest Blogger

Part 3

Dollars & Sense: A striking aspect of your analysis of industrial and commercial enterprises is that, rather than simply becoming more reliant on bank finance, they have taken their own retained profits and begun to behave like financial companies. Rather than plow profits back into investment in their core businesses, they are instead placing bets on lots of different kinds of businesses. What accounts for that change in corporate behavior?

CL: In some ways, again, this is the deepest and most difficult issue with regard to financialization. Let me make one point clear: to capture financialization and to define it, we don’t really have to go into what determines the behavior of firms in this way. Financialization is middle-range theory. If I recognize the changed behavior of the corporation, that’s enough for understanding financialization. It’s good enough for middle-range theory. Now obviously you’re justifiedto ask this question: why are corporations changing their behavior in this way? And, there, I would go back at some point to technologies, labor, and so on—the forces and relations of production.

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Gerald Epstein

When President Obama’s fortunes were tanking in the winter of 2010, he needed a way to come out punching at the bankers again in order to gain some more momentum on financial reform—and with the voters. So he turned to an unlikely “populist” symbol—Paul Volcker, former head of the Federal Reserve System from the 1980s, who had been widely reviled, especially on the left, for his anti-inflationary crusade and high interest rate policy at that time. Volcker’s policy raised unemployment to dizzying heights, resulted in thousands of bankruptcies, and ushered in the Third World debt crisis that left much of South America in economic ruin for a decade or more. But as a sign of how crazy U.S. politics had become and how far economic discourse had shifted to the right in the ensuing 30 years, Paul Volcker had become a voice of relative sanity in the fight over financial reform in the wake of the Great Financial Crisis of 2007-2008. Obama called a press conference with Volcker at the front and Timothy Geithner, Obama’s Treasury Secretary who had been very unenthusiastic about significant financial reform, slightly behind and with a scowl on his face. The conference announced Obama’s support for “the Volcker Rule,” which was to be included in the Dodd-Frank Financial Reform bill that was under development and the subject of furious debate in Washington—and that ultimately became law in the summer of 2010.

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