Makers and takers The rise of finance and the fall of American business

Rana Foroohar

Book - 2016

"Eight years on from the biggest market meltdown since the Great Depression, the key lessons of the crisis of 2008 still remain unlearned--and our financial system is just as vulnerable as ever. Many of us know that our government failed to fix the banking system after the subprime mortgage crisis. But what few of us realize is how the misguided financial practices and philosophies that nearly toppled the global financial system have come to infiltrate ALL American businesses, putting us on a collision course for another cataclysmic meltdown. Drawing on in-depth reporting and exclusive interviews at the highest rungs of Wall Street and Washington, Time assistant managing editor and economic columnist Rana Foroohar shows how the "f...inancialization of America" - the trend by which finance and its way of thinking have come to reign supreme - is perpetuating Wall Street's reign over Main Street, widening the gap between rich and poor, and threatening the future of the American Dream. Policy makers get caught up in the details of regulating "Too Big To Fail" banks, but the problems in our market system go much broader and deeper than that. Consider that: · Thanks to 40 years of policy changes and bad decisions, only about 15 % of all the money in our market system actually ends up in the real economy - the rest stays within the closed loop of finance itself. · The financial sector takes a quarter of all corporate profits in this country while creating only 4 % of American jobs. · The tax code continues to favor debt over equity, making it easier for companies to hoard cash overseas rather than reinvest it on our shores. · Our biggest and most profitable corporations are investing more money in stock buybacks than in research and innovation. · And, still, the majority of the financial regulations promised after the 2008 meltdown have yet come to pass, thanks to cozy relationship between our lawmakers and the country's wealthiest financiers. Exploring these forces, which have led American businesses to favor balancing-sheet engineering over the actual kind and the pursuit of short-term corporate profits over job creation, Foroohar shows how financialization has so gravely harmed our society, and why reversing this trend is of grave importance to us all. Through colorful stories of both "Takers" and "Makers," she'll reveal how we change the system for a better and more sustainable shared economic future"--

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New York : Crown Business [2016]
Main Author
Rana Foroohar (author)
Physical Description
xi, 388 pages ; 24 cm
Includes bibliographical references (pages [331]-375) and index.
  • Author's Note
  • Introduction
  • Chapter 1. The Rise of Finance
  • Chapter 2. The Fall of Business: Bean Counters Versus Car Guys-Frederick Winslow Taylor, Robert McNamara, and the Financialization of Industry
  • Chapter 3. What An MBA Won't Teach You: How Business Education Is Failing American Businesses
  • Chapter 4. Barbarians at the Gate: Apple, Carl Icahn, and the Rise of Shareholder Activism
  • Chapter 5. We're all Bankers Now: GE and the Story of How American Business Came to Emulate Finance
  • Chapter 6. Financial Weapons of Mass Destruction: Commodities, Derivatives, and How Wall Street Created a Food
  • Chapter 7. When Wall Street Owns Main Street: Private Equity, Shadow Banking, and How Finance Reaped the Benefits of the Housing Recovery
  • Chapter 8. The End of Retirement: How Wall Street Ate Our Nest Eggs
  • Chapter 9. The Artful Dodgers: How Our Tax Code Rewards the Takers Instead of the Makers
  • Chapter 10. The Revolving Door: How Washington Favors Wall Street over Main Street
  • Chapter 11. How to Put Finance Back in Service to Business and Society
  • Acknowledgments
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Index
Review by New York Times Review

THEY CAN'T KILL US ALL: The Story of the Struggle for Black Lives, by Wesley Lowery. (Back Bay/Little, Brown, $16.99.) As a journalist with The Washington Post covering race and law enforcement, Lowery reported on highprofile deaths including those of Michael Brown, Philando Castile and Alton Sterling and followed the Black Lives Matter movement. His book chronicles the movement as well as his evolution and outlook as a reporter. THEY MAY NOT MEAN TO, BUT THEY DO, by Cathleen Schine. (Picador, $16.) After her husband's death, Joy, 86, worries about becoming a burden and being sent offto a nursing home. Her children fret about helping her stave offloneliness and despair, until the return of Joy's old flame sends them into a frenzy. Schine handles death, aging and infirmity with candor and wry humor. TRUE BELIEVER: Stalin's Last American Spy, by Kati Marton. (Simon & Schuster, $17.) A privileged American who worked for the State Department, Noel Field joined the underground Communist movement in the 1930s, before being groomed by Soviet intelligence. Marton charts his transformation from an idealist to Stalinist hard-liner, tracing his ideology to what he saw as failures of capitalism. THE STORY OF A BRIEF MARRIAGE, by Anuk Arudpragasam. (Flatiron, $14.99.) Dinesh is one of hundreds displaced by Sri Lanka's civil war, helping bury the dead in a refugee camp during the final months of the conflict. An unexpected marriage thrusts him into new, unexpected intimacies, all while surrounded by the churn of violence and death. This debut novel is "a book that makes one kneel before the elegance of the human spirit and the yearning that is at the essence of every life," Ru Freeman wrote here. MAKERS AND TAKERS: How Wall Street Destroyed Main Street, by Rana Foroohar. (Crown Business, $17.) The recovery after the 2008 crash has been the slowest and weakest of the postwar era, Foroohar, a Financial Times columnist, observes, and finance has stopped serving the real economy. She suggests ways to reverse course and ensure that middle-class Americans and small businesses aren't leftbehind. MOONGLOW, by Michael Chabon. (Harper Perennial, $16.99.) Drawing on his grandfather's deathbed confessions, Chabon has written a hybrid novel based on his grandparents' unlikely marriage (she a French Holocaust survivor, he an American Jew who served in World War II). The story is a lyrical portrait of postwar United States, with digressions on the supernatural and space travel.

Copyright (c) The New York Times Company [August 30, 2019]
Review by Booklist Review

Business- and economic-journalist Foroohar offers a spirited attack on the rise of finance which, we learn, has caused the fall of American business and has negatively impacted the American dream by citing the 2008 financial crisis and our longest and weakest economic recovery since WWII. The author names our economic illness financialization the trend of Wall Street's short-term, risky thinking, which also reigns over American businesses. Foroohar defines makers as people, companies, and ideas that create real economic growth and takers as those that use our dysfunctional market system mainly to enrich themselves including many, if not all financiers and financial institutions, CEOs, politicians, and regulators. Topics include the Citigroup story, the too big to fail crisis, and the General Motors story. The author's ideas on how to integrate finance into the real economy include recommending that workers and taxpayers should also benefit from corporate America's riches, not just shareholders. All will not agree with Foroohar, but her analysis will add to the ongoing and important debates on these fundamental issues.--Whaley, Mary Copyright 2016 Booklist

From Booklist, Copyright (c) American Library Association. Used with permission.

Chapter 1 The Rise of Finance If there is a Godfather of modern finance, it must be Sanford "Sandy" Weill, the former CEO of one of the world's largest financial institutions, Citigroup. A kid from Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, who grew up to become the world's most powerful banker, he started his career with $30,000 and rose through Wall Street ranks to lead the megabank that came to epitomize the Too Big to Fail era. The creation of Citigroup--a merger between Weill's own Travelers Group (an insurance and investment firm) and Citicorp back in 1998--was a seismic moment in the story of financialization that created the planet's biggest-ever financial conglomerate. Not only that, but it was also the nail in the coffin of Glass-Steagall, the Depression-era banking legislation that had kept consumers relatively safe from exploitation by financial interests since the 1930s. Weill called the merger "the greatest deal in the history of the financial services industry" and "the crowning of my career."1 It was a transaction that would allow the newly formed company to offer pretty much every financial service ever invented, from credit cards to corporate IPO underwriting, high-speed trading to mortgages, investment advice to the sale of any complex security you could imagine, in 160-plus countries, twenty-four hours a day. As with the British Empire in a former era, the sun never set on Citigroup. So it was quite a moment when, in mid-2012, the emperor had an ideological abdication. Weill, who stepped down as Citi CEO in 2003 and has recently undergone something of an existential crisis over his role in the worst financial crash in eighty years, went on CNBC and declared that pretty much everything he'd believed about the bank, and about finance, was wrong. In fact, he said, if he were to do it over again, Citigroup itself would probably never have come to be. What's more, the business model that financial institutions have fought to preserve through billions spent on funding campaigns and lobbying Congress had saddled American depositors and taxpayers with unacceptable risks. "What we should probably do is go and split up investment banking from [commercial] banking," Weill said. "Have banks be deposit takers. Have banks make commercial loans and real estate loans. Have banks do something that's not going to risk the taxpayer dollars, that's not going to be Too Big to Fail."2 As conversions go, Weill's was positively biblical. It came four years after a long chain of disastrous decisions by Citigroup and the rest of the Too Big to Fail banks had landed them at the epicenter of the financial crisis, with hundreds of billions of dollars of exploding securities on their books and worried customers on the verge of mass panic that threatened to throw the country into another Great Depression. The crisis ultimately required $1.59 trillion in government bailouts (and another $12 trillion worth of federal guarantees and loans) and even with that, it shaved more off the American economy than any other downturn since the 1930s.3 But that wasn't all. As the dust settled on the crisis and the American recovery continued to be lackluster, particularly in relation to recoveries past, some policy makers, academics, and rank-and-file consumers began to suspect that something was wrong at a deeper level--namely, that although the financial industry had been set up to support business and to provide the liquidity that firms and individuals needed to prosper, it no longer seemed to serve that function. As Stephen Roach, the former chief economist of Morgan Stanley, put it to me in an interview right after the fall of Lehman Brothers, "finance has simply moved too far from its moorings in the real economy."4 Indeed, as the banks got bailed out and swiftly recovered, things in the real economy grew worse. Bank profits reached record heights, yet loans to businesses and consumers shrank. Corporate earnings were high, yet few companies wanted to invest their cash in Main Street. Instead, managers beholden to the markets disgorged it mainly to rich investors and Wall Street.5 Meanwhile, America's largest financial institutions remained as focused as ever on securities trading, the "casino" part of the banking business, since there was no reason not to be. Regulators had yet--and still have yet--to prohibit bankers from eschewing this more profitable type of business in favor of boring, old-fashioned lending. The very riskiest portion of the markets, derivatives trading, actually grew following the crisis. Globally, it was 20 percent bigger in late 2013 than in late 2007 (and US regulators are trying to police it with budgets that haven't increased much since then).6 And that's just what we can see. Shadow banking, the portion of the financial industry that remains largely unregulated (and includes hedge funds, money market funds, and financial arms of big companies like GE), has grown like kudzu: swelling by more than $1.3 trillion per year since 2011 and reaching $36 trillion today.7 Through it all, low interest rates set by the Federal Reserve, which were supposed to help individuals, ended up making the rich richer by inflating the stock market rather than improving the ability of real people to refinance their homes. (Most of the housing recovery has been led by investors, as will be covered in chapter 7.) A Post-Traumatic Nation Of course, plenty of people will ask why, if finance is having such a dampening effect on the economy, America is in recovery. Certainly there are several factors--like a weaker oil price, and the subsequent pickup in consumer demand--that are finally, eight years on from the crisis, driving US growth. But I would argue that these are short-term cyclical trends that can--and will--change. Indeed, consumer confidence and spending continue to be volatile in the wake of the crash. As Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz put it to me in 2015, even in the midst of economic recovery American consumers remain "fragile," almost as if they have suffered a kind of trauma. Schultz and many other executives believe that skittishness has become a generational imprint, meaning that today's generation of American consumers, who are still counted on to fuel the world's growth engine, may be so traumatized they can't perform that traditional role anymore. Meanwhile, the deep structural dysfunction in our economy, emanating from the financial system, remains in place. The size of the sector itself is still close to record highs (as measured by its share of overall employment), though that may wax and wane as the impact of digital technology on job growth becomes more pronounced. But what's quite clear is that the reorientation of our economy toward finance and the dominance of financial thinking in daily management of nonfinancial firms have warped the way both business and society work. The sway of the markets over the real economy has skewed the playing field and created growing inequality and capture of resources at the top of the socioeconomic pyramid. It has also led to dramatic inefficiencies in resource allocation that may be a cause, rather than a symptom, of slower economic growth.8 These aren't new observations, but rather old warnings that have been pushed aside or forgotten. The great liberal economist John Maynard Keynes, for one, worried that market capitalism might be able to function quite well without actually employing many people, particularly if money went to speculation rather than productive investment. (He called on the government to boost long-term investment through special incentives.) Other thinkers, like Hyman Minsky, Harry Magdoff, and Paul Sweezy, took that idea further, arguing that finance itself creates bubbles and draws money away from the real economy as a matter of course. As Minsky put it, "capitalism is a flawed system in that, if its development is not constrained, it will lead to periodic deep depressions and the perpetuation of poverty."9 He also believed that the government would be forced to act as a lender of last resort during such periods, a position that would become untenable as public debt levels rose, leading to more public pressure to allow more speculation, which would unleash renewed instability, and so on. This story of a "symbiotic embrace" between finance and underlying economic malaise, one that the markets can't stave off forever, finds resonance in the fact that every recovery of the post-World War II period has been longer and weaker than the one before.10 What's new and important now is the growing body of data that supports these ideas. Consider the 2015 paper by BIS senior economist Enisse Kharroubi and Brandeis University professor Stephen Cecchetti, who examined how finance affected growth in fifteen countries. They found that productivity--the value that each worker creates in the economy, which, along with demographics, is basically the driver of economic progress--declines in markets with rapidly expanding financial sectors. What's more, the industries most likely to suffer are those, like advanced manufacturing, that are most critical for long-term growth and jobs. That's because finance would rather invest in areas like real estate and construction, which are far less productive but offer quicker, more reliable short-term gains (as well as collateral that can be sold in crisis or securitized in boom times).11 No wonder twin booms in credit and real estate were a defining characteristic of many economies worst hit by the 2008 financial crisis.12 Government has a huge role to play in all this. Deregulation from the 1970s onward encouraged banks to move away from their traditional role of enabling investment, and toward embracing speculation. It also paved the way to the so-called shareholder revolution, which enriched investors but pushed corporations into debt and toward short-term decision making. Both trends have redirected capital to less socially useful areas of the economy and created a vicious cycle that's increasingly difficult to break via the usual methods like monetary policy. Witness the fact that despite the $4.5 trillion the Fed injected into the economy and six years of historically low interest rates, corporations are reinvesting just 1-2 percent of their assets into Main Street.13 Much of the rest is going straight into the pockets of the richest 10 percent of the population--mostly in the form of rising asset prices--and those people are unlikely to spend as much of it as the middle and working classes would. That our market system has been corrupted in a way that's thwarting growth is something Adam Smith himself would have agreed with. His theory of how markets worked evolved at a time when small family-owned firms operated largely on level playing fields with equal access to information. Today financial capitalism is fraught with special interests, corporate monopolies, and an opacity that would have boggled Smith's mind. Let me be clear: despite my criticism of our existing model of financial capitalism, this book isn't anticapitalist. I am not in favor of a planned economy or a turn away from a market system. I simply don't think that the system we have now is a properly functioning market system. We have a rentier economy in which a small group of vested interests take the cream off the top, to the detriment of overall growth. I agree with economists like Joseph Stiglitz, George Akerlof, Paul Volcker, and others who believe that markets prudently regulated by governments are the best guarantee of peace and prosperity the world has ever known. Until we make more progress toward that goal, we won't have the kind of recovery we deserve.   The High Price of Complexity The first step in this process is understanding how the financial sector, which is the pivot point for all of this, came to play such an outsize role. Finance isn't just banking. It includes securities dealers, insurance companies, mutual funds, pension funds, hedge funds, traders, credit derivative product companies, real estate firms, structured investment vehicles, and commercial paper conduits, among others. All of them "can fit together like Russian dolls," as Paul Tucker, the former head of markets for the Bank of England, once put it.14 Yet at the heart of all this is the Too Big to Fail bank. The very same one-stop-shop bank model that Weill once heralded as the future of the industry--and of American competitiveness--proved to be its downfall. Yes, customers around the world could do everything at Citi, an institution with assets implicitly underwritten by the US government, thanks to FDIC insurance and Fed protection. But that also meant that financial shocks could migrate quickly through the bank's interconnected global operations. Not only could problems in Iceland ricochet within seconds to Iowa, but the connections themselves were too complicated even for the bank's own risk managers, not to mention their leaders, to comprehend in real time. "Do CEOs of large, complex financial institutions today know everything that's on their balance sheet? It's not possible to know," former Goldman Sachs partner and former head of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission Gary Gensler told me in 2014. "There are just too many things going on for their operations now in the markets for them to know."15   1. Sandy Weill, with Judah S. Kraushaar, The Real Deal: My Life in Business and Philanthropy (New York: Hachette Book Group, 2006), 300 and 316. 2. "Wall Street Legend Weill: Breaking Up Big Banks," CNBC, July 25, 2012. 3. Estimate by Princeton economist Alan Blinder and Moody's Analytics economist Mark Zandi in "How the Great Recession Was Brought to an End," July 27, 2010, 4. Rana Foroohar, "A New Age of Global Capitalism Starts Now," Newsweek, October 3, 2008. 5. Author interviews with William Lazonick; Mason, "Disgorge the Cash." 6. The Bank for International Settlements reports that the global derivatives market was about $586 trillion in December 2007 and about $710 trillion in December 2013. See BIS Statistics Explorer, "Table D5.1: Global OTC derivatives market" (the values are for "notional amounts outstanding"). 7. Financial Stability Board, global shadow banking monitoring reports for respective years and a statistical annex published in 2012 ("Global Shadow Banking Monitoring Report 2012," Exhibits 2-1, 2-2, and 2-3, November 18, 2012). 8. Turbeville, "Financialization & Equal Opportunity." 9. Hyman P. Minsky, "Hyman P. Minsky (1919-1996)," autobiographical article originally written in 1992, in Philip Arestis and Malcolm Sawyer, eds., A Biographical Dictionary of Dissenting Economists (Northampton, MA: Edward Elgar, 2000), 416, quoted in John Bellamy Foster and Fred Magdoff, The Great Financial Crisis: Causes and Consequences (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2009), 17. 10. The concept of a "symbiotic embrace," a phrase that initially appeared in a BusinessWeek editorial in 1985, is discussed in Harry Magdoff and Paul M. Sweezy, Stagnation and the Financial Explosion (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1987). For a comparison of American economic recoveries since the 1960s, see Drew Desilver, "Five Years in, Recovery Still Underwhelms Compared with Previous Ones," Pew Research Center, June 23, 2014. 11. Cecchetti and Kharroubi, "Why Does Financial Sector Growth Crowd Out Real Economic Growth?" 12. International Monetary Fund, "Housing Finance and Real-Estate Booms: A Cross-Country Perspective," by Eugenio Cerutti, Jihad Dagher, and Giovanni Dell'Ariccia, Staff Discussion Note 15/12, June 2015. 13. Mason, "Disgorge the Cash," 32. 14. Paul Tucker, "A Perspective on Recent Monetary and Financial System Developments," speech at the Bank of England, April 26, 2007. 15. Author interview with Gensler for this book. Excerpted from Makers and Takers: The Rise of Finance and the Fall of American Business by Rana Foroohar All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.