Saturday, December 3, 2011

The Lords of Finance Are Today's Money-Changers in The Temple

At least since the time of Christ, there has been some degree of moral opprobrium in Western culture against making money solely from the use of money.  First he drove the money-changers from the temple (as well as other businesses, but the image remains a classic) and later he spoke against lending money at interest. This opprobrium was so strong that for centuries Christians were prohibited from lending money at interest. That task, so crucial to commercial life, was left to the infidel Jews, who were nevertheless frequently sanctioned for their practices.

In more modern times, the opprobrium has lapsed as we all know, but there remained both a moral opprobrium and a legal sanction against lending at usurious rates … such as the practice of loan sharks. Currently all states have laws against usury that set a maximum legal rate of interest and federal law criminalizes charging twice that amount and attempting to collect it. Making a reasonable profit from ones money was deemed respectable and moral; but making too much was beyond the pale.  In the latter case, one was thought to take advantage of people who were in difficulty.

After the stock market crash of 1929, Congressional hearings revealed that the mixing of commercial and investment banking activities during the 1920s had created conflicts of interest and fraud, which helped bring about the 1929 crash.  To prohibit such practices, Congress passed the Glass-Steagall Act in 1933.

Until its repeal in 1999 by a Republican Congress (and yes, unfortunately signed into law by President Clinton), commercial banks had been prohibited from engaging in speculative investment by being prohibited from owning other financial institutions, such as investment banks. The act basically limited commercial banks to helping individuals and businesses in every-day activities such as holding deposits and making loans.

After the repeal of Glass-Steagall, commercial and investment banking activities could again be combined (that’s how the “too big to fail” banks came into being) and banks were free to play the market for their own benefit.  And have they played! Both before the 2008 financial crisis and since, the large banks, such as the iconic Goldman Sachs, have made fortunes from playing the market … and not in the sense that the individual investor might play the market. They have acted unethically if not illegally.

They have created questionable financial instruments often only to then bet against their own clients who purchased these instruments. They have undermined the global financial system through their enabling countries, such as Greece, to assume huge debt levels off the books and then undermining those same countries by betting against them. They have manipulated the market to the detriment of individual investors, countries, and the general public and they have made fortunes in doing so.

This is an example of capitalism run amok. I think that everyone should be able to make a reasonable profit from the use of their assets. And if someone is producing something unique of value to society, then they should be able to make more than what might otherwise be considered a reasonable amount … such as is allowed by virtue of the patent laws.

But the money made by today’s large commercial investment banks and the way in which they make it add up, in my mind, to ill-begotten anti-social gains. They are beyond the pale. Not only should practices such as derivatives trading and credit default swaps be closely regulated for the safety of the broader economy … which the banks are fighting against tooth and nail … but those gains should at a minimum be taxed at a very high rate to discourage such activity and preferably be made illegal.

The modern-day lords of finance are a cancer on the structure of our economy and as such they need to be controlled with laser-like precision.