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Over-financialisation – the Casino Metaphor

The casino metaphor has been widely used as a part-description of the phenomenon of over-financialisation. It’s a handy pejorative tag but can it give us any real insights? This article pursues the metaphor to extremes so that we can file & forget/get back to the football or possibly graduate to next level thinking.

What is the Financialised Economy (FE) and how big is it?

The FE can be loosely described as ‘making money out of money’ as opposed to making money out of something; or ‘profiting without producing’ [1]. Its primacy derives largely from two sources – the ability of the commercial banks to create credit out of thin air and then lend it and charge and retain interest; and their ability to direct the first use of capital created in this fashion to friends of the casino as opposed to investing it in real economy (RE) businesses. So the FE has the ability to create money and direct where it is used. Given those powers it is perhaps unsurprising that it chooses to feed itself before it feeds the RE. The FE’s key legitimate roles – in insurance and banking services – have morphed into a self-serving parasite. The tail is wagging the dog.

The FE’s power over the allocation of capital has been re-exposed, for those who were perhaps unaware of it, as we see the massive liquidity injected by the central banks via QE disappearing into the depths of bank balance sheets and inflated asset values leaving mid/small RE businesses gasping for liquidity.

By giving preferential access to any capital allocated to the RE to its big business buddies the FE enables those companies to take out better run smaller competitors via leveraged buy outs. By ‘investing’ in regulators and politicians via revolving doors and backhanders, it captures the legislative process and effectively writes its own rule book.

Five years after the 2008 crisis hit, as carefully catalogued by FinanceWatch [2], economies are more financialised than ever. If the politicians and regulators ever had any balls they have been amputated by the casino managers, under the anaesthesis of perceived self-interest. They have become the casino eunuchs. An apparent early consensus on the systemic problems of over financialisation has melted away into a misconceived search for ‘business as usual’.

Derivatives

Derivatives are one of the most popular games in the casino.

Over the counter derivatives, which are essentially bets on the performance of asset prices, stocks, indices or interest rates, have a nominal value (as of December 2012 [2]) of USD 632 trillion – 6% up from 2007 levels – and 9 times world GDP. If the world decided to stop living and buy back derivatives instead of food, energy, shelter and all the stuff we currently consume, it would take nine years to spend this amount.

OK – it’s a nominal value. Many observers believe (even hope) that its real value is a minute fraction of this, but the only way we will ever find out is if the derivative contracts unwind. That is, prompted presumably by some form of crisis, parties progressively withdraw from the contracts or fold. The regulators (and the FE itself of course) will do everything they can to prevent this from happening, including grinding the population into the dust via austerity, because while no-one knows who precisely holds the unwound risk, most will certainly belong to the FE’s top tier.

Many of these derivatives started life as sensible financial products. Businesses need to insure against an uncertain harvest, or hedge against uncertain currency movements. But only a small proportion of current holders now have an insurable risk. So whereas in the past you could say we insured against our own house burning down, now they bet on their neighbour’s house burning; whereas in the past we bet on our own life expectancy, they now bet on the deaths of others; whereas in the past we insured against currency losses we experienced in our own business transactions, now they bet on currency movements in general. What might be expected when there are incentives to burn your neighbour’s house down? Organisations have even purposely set up junk asset classes, had them AAA rated, sold them to outsiders and then bet on their failure.

Government & Politicians

Politics operates as a debating society in a rented corner of the casino. The rent is high but largely invisible to the populace. The debaters are themselves well off, at least in the U.S. they are [3].

Now the strange thing is that the government actually owns the casino, but they have forgotten this. For the last 40 years or so, they have asked the casino managers to issue all the chips. The government use the same chips to spend on public services, and require us all to pay taxes in those chips. Mostly they don’t have enough chips for all the services they provide, so they ask the casino managers for loans. The casino managers are happy with this, provided the government pay interest on the loan of chips. This hidden subsidy effectively funds the casino. It’s perverse because the government pays interest on money they could issue themselves debt-free.

It’s not entirely clear why the government thinks the casino managers are better at managing chips than they would be. Arguably the government is elected to carry out a programme and they should be the arbiters of the country’s strategic priorities, so there should be some strategic guidance over the way the chips are spent.

But the government is only here for five years, and the casino managers are here permanently. So perhaps they think it’s safer just to trust the casino managers to get on with it. When asked, the casino managers explain that they allocate chips according to ‘what the market needs’ and no-one quite understands why that doesn’t seem to include much real investment. In any case the government have forgotten that they could issue the chips themselves, and although prompted (e.g. [4]), have failed to show any interest in reclaiming that power. Occasionally they create a whole new batch of chips themselves (QE) – if they think the tables are quiet – but give them straight back to the casino managers. Maybe it’s too complicated for politicians. Many of them haven’t had proper jobs. There are a few civil servants who understand what’s happening, but most of them don’t want to rock the boat – they are here permanently too and have good pensions. They research for the debaters and have lunch with the casino managers. That keeps them quite busy enough, thank you.

The Real Economy

The Real Economy also operates from a corner of the casino. It’s hard to put an exact figure on it, but perhaps 3-5% of the overall floor space depending how you measure.

It’s a very important corner of the casino, but not for the reasons it should be. It should be important because it’s the place where food is grown, houses are built, energy for warmth and work is created and so on. But these precious things are taken for granted by the casino managers. They have always had enough chips to buy whatever they need – they issue them for God’s sake – and they think food, shelter and energy will always be available to them. Crucially though, they have also managed to financialise this remaining RE corner, and this ‘support’ is trotted out as a continuing justification for the FE’s central importance .

The RE corner has always included important social and cultural, non-GDP activities. The enormous real value of these activities is now being properly articulated and is spawning citizen-led initiatives (e.g. sharing economy approaches, basic unconditional income) but they are often presented as beggars who annoyingly keep petitioning for their ‘entitlements’ and generally clutter up this remote corner of the casino.

On the finance side, individuals and businesses are exploring ways of funding their future activity without going cap-in-hand to the casino managers. They are exploring peer-to-peer finance, crowdfunding, prepayment instruments and so on. What these initiatives have in common is the disintermediation of the casino. They provide ways for people to invest more directly and take more control over their savings and investments. Of course a new breed of intermediary is surfacing to broker and risk-insure these new models, and these new intermediaries can also be captured.

With transparency and short-circuit communication via social media though, there is definitely scope to do things differently. We must hope for progress because the casino managers have little interest in what’s going on outside.

The Planet – outside the casino

The planet outside is used by the casino in two ways – as a source of materials and as a dumping ground for waste.

The materials are not essential to the core FE which is all about making money out of money and needs nothing but ideas, a few arcane mathematical models to give spurious gravitas, and credulous or naive investors. But RE activity performs a valuable role for the casino managers – it provides them with an endless stream of innovative ways of using chips. The shale gas bonanza for example is apparently grounded in the real world need for energy, and is presented as such. Its significance to the FE is as another bubble based partly at least on land-lease ‘flipping’ [5].

Without an RE-related rationale/narrative, the FE might disappear up its own waste pipe as it re-invested/sliced-and-diced/marketised its own products to itself. So materials from outside the casino are important for the managers’ big corporate proxies in the RE.

FE-favoured RE activities also create lots of waste, some of which is toxic, and may eventually prove terminal, as it builds up. This fact is of little interest to the casino managers. There is a minor interest in waste-related financialised vehicles – carbon markets for example are a relatively new casino game – and in the slight impact on some of the FE’s RE-friends like big energy companies. But mostly the casino managers are too busy with their games and their chips. Occasionally a manager will wake up to the dangers and defect to the real world where they, somewhat perversely, carry more credibility because of their casino experience. A small minority of managers stay within the casino and try to gently modify its behaviour. This is portrayed as a healthy sign of openness; the casino is secure in the knowledge that their ways cannot easily be re-engineered.

Combating the casino’s influence

Essentially there would appear to be three possible lines of response for those who believe there should be more to life than casino capitalism. Marginalise, convert or destroy……

These approaches map on to the three ‘broad strategies of emancipatory transformation’ suggested by sociologist Erik Olin Wright [6] – interstitial, symbiotic and ruptural. I have a fourth suggestion/ variation of which more in a moment.

The challenge for interstitial initiatives is the sheer pervasiveness of the FE. There are few spaces left where the effects of the FE can be ignored. They may not be well understood, but whenever we pursue dreams, they pop up in front of us, usually as obstacles. Developments that are most heavily attacked by the FE establishment perhaps merit the most attention – community scale renewable energy, crypto currencies, co-ops, the sharing economy, and so on. The more these alternative directions are attacked as utopian or uneconomic the more we can be sure they offer promising interstitial opportunities.

Symbiotic opportunities may represent the triumph of hope over experience. Armed with the power of ideas, we back our ability to persuade policy makers and business leaders to change the game. The main challenges here are the arrogance of the powerful and the danger of being captured by supping with the devil. Vested interests generally feel secure enough that they don’t need to negotiate or even to spend brain power on listening and evaluating alternatives. If enough interest is manifested that symbiotic trial projects are begun, their champions can be captured by being made comfortable.

Ruptural alternatives come in a spectrum from those that would destroy business models to those that would destroy societies. They probably share the above analysis but differ in their degree of radicalism and disconnection from the main. The impact of FE-driven globalisation is beyond the scope of this article, save to note that its effects have unnecessarily radicalised whole populations making more measured responses more difficult to promote than they might have been.

The role of the internet and social media in progressing both interstitial and ruptural initiatives is significant. Most of the space to develop and assemble communities of interest and mission-partners is here, explaining why both are likely to experience increasingly determined attempts to capture.

The nature of one’s chosen response will be a matter of personal choice. We should not be judgemental of those who don’t have the will, energy or resourcefulness to play a more active role. We all suffer from our subservience to a dysfunctional system, some much more than others. The fourth response? Perhaps there’s some mileage in judo principles [7].

References

[1]: http://rikowski.wordpress.com/2013/12/12/profiting-without-producing-how-finance-exploits-u s-all/
[2]: http://www.finance-watch.org/
[3]: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-25691066
[4]: http://www.positivemoney.org/
[5]: “It seems fairly clear at this time that the land is the play, and not the gas. The extremely high prices for land in all of these plays has produced a commodity market more attractive than the natural gas produced.” Art Berman quoted at http://theautomaticearth.blogspot.ie/2011/07/july-8-2011-get-ready-for-north.html
[6]: http://realutopias.org/
[7]: http://judoinfo.com/unbalance.htm

Featured image: Luxor, Las Vegas. Author: David Marshall jr. Source: http://www.sxc.hu/browse.phtml?f=view&id=90604

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