The Real Problem With Finance

What’s not to love about the burgeoning U.S. financial sector? After all, the U.S. finance, insurance and real estate sector now accounts for 20 percent of GDP — compared with only 10 percent in 1947. And since 1980, the growth in the finance sector has accounted for a quarter of all growth in the entire services sector.

This is anything but an unmitigated good, with more than a few downsides. For example, corporate conglomerates, which used to provide long-term, decently paid employment and stable retirement benefits have largely been broken up as a result of the pressure of financial markets for short-term gain, also called “shareholder value maximization.” This development has also shifted much corporate decision-making from the boardroom to a conditioned response to national and global financial markets, in turn drastically slowing down real capital formation in the U.S. and the E.U., as well as gutting basic research funding by U.S. industry.

In addition, the growth of finance has resulted in significant income transfers from the working middle class to financial professionals and executives. One of the results of this income transfer is that demand for goods and services has not increased nearly so fast as in other times of economic expansion, simply because the working middle class hasn’t been able to afford as much in terms of goods and services and because the well-off and wealthy don’t spend as high a percentage of their income on goods and services. The lack of demand has also kept wages down, and while the Trump “tax cuts” will likely spur demand this year, that’s strictly a one-time economic boost.

Those who think corporate tax cuts will offer significant improvement are also bound to be disappointed come next year. Despite record profits in many areas, the majority of improvement in corporate balance sheets has gone anywhere but to workers, and there’s no sign that corporations are going to give significantly more to rank-and-file workers. To professionals and executives, yes, but not to those lower on the corporate food chain. A lot of those profits are going to corporate share buybacks, to keep the stock prices up, rather to workers or even to shareholders through increased dividends, all of which benefits executives with stock options.

All of this is the result of American businesses falling for the short-term siren song of the finance boys’ [and the overwhelming majority are still men] “shareholder value maximization,” which, ironically enough, often doesn’t even benefit anyone but short-term shareholders or corporate executives who’ll likely be gone in five or ten years.

And, if you still believe in the goodness of the financial sector… you’re likely to be part of it.

3 thoughts on “The Real Problem With Finance”

  1. M. Kilian says:

    From what I’ve seen I think you’re absolutely right. It seems to me that (the people running) corporations act more and more to keep as much of the revenue that passes through their businesses as possible, whilst pouring the absolute minimum they can afford back into the economy that provides their income.

    I don’t think it’s a sustainable model.

    1. JM says:

      It is not, nor has it ever been. But then this is just history repeating itself. Just take a look at the coorperations behind the railroad boon. Unless my memory is incorrect (which has been known to happen).

  2. Peter Bowron says:

    Your comments about corporate tax cuts resonate in Australia. It has been cut regularly over the past few decades (along with personal tax rates, with most going to the higher brackets. Little trickles down to the workers (corporate wage rises about 12%PA, compared to average of about 2%, on or about inflation, so nothing real.) The loss of tax revenue is made up for by 1. borrowing; 2 cutting services and making the end user pay or pay more.

    The good news is that we’ve just had a serious judicial inquiry into our finance industry. Various crooks in white collars have at least “resigned.” Hopefully criminal proceedings will follow.

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