In March 2010 Andrew Haldane, Executive Director for Financial Stability at the Bank of England, estimated that the financial crisis that began in 2008 will ultimately cost the world economy between $60 trillion and $200 trillion in lost production (link). The methods he used to reach his conclusions require a number of assumptions, but so would any effort at assessing the broader damage. And to his point, counting the cost of bank crises in terms of costs to the banks alone substantially misrepresents the economic harm that recurrent crises cause.
When J.P. Morgan announced last week that it had lost $2 billion from derivatives transactions gone awry, later revised to $3 billion and rising, the mainstream press reiterated the framing that this is a cost to be borne by the bank and that it indicates what the rest of us might be expected to contribute if another banking crisis erupts. The implication is that future crises are possible, ignoring that we are collectively still paying for the last crisis. And again, to Mr. Haldane’s point, the costs to Wall Street are nearly irrelevant when considering the total costs of banking crises.
This all proceeds from the premise that the broader economic order, of which the banks are a part, is a viable form of economic organization. Given that the current order is radically environmentally unsustainable, it is tempting to imagine that the lost production that Mr. Haldane is counting as a cost of the financial crisis has a silver lining in slowed environmental degradation. Additionally, any careful look at the business of banking finds degrees of predation inversely related to social power—even when they aren’t blowing themselves up, most of the world would be better off without predator banks.
This establishes a paradox—the existing economic (and political) order isn’t working. But, as political leaders on the right and what passes for the left these days claim, failing to sustain it would entail massive human costs in terms of unemployment, bankruptcy, poverty, divorce, suicide and the dissolution of our public institutions. Ironically, add increasing environmental destruction to this list and it well describes current conditions under the existing order. Apparently the best that defenders can offer is that things could be a lot worse.
To point to the obvious, even Mr. Haldane’s lower cost estimate of $60 trillion isn’t being borne by the banks. The banks couldn’t pay this if they were forced to—it is more money than they will collectively earn in profits over coming decades. And it isn’t being borne by the large corporations that are earning the highest rate of profits in history. It is in fact a negative, an unmet promise made to the rest of us by the proponents of capitalism over recent decades. Through the prism of social struggle it appears as an absence, not as a more straightforwardly actionable misappropriation. But then, what is the ultimate difference?Read the rest at Counterpunch
The True Costs of Bank Crises
by Rob Urie
Ultimately the particulars of J.P. Morgan’s losses are so much noise. What they point to is an economic system designed to self-destruct. Add increasing environmental degradation in the face of global warming to structural financial fragility and what capitalism appears to have created is a full-blown suicide machine....Negative externality, difficult to measure without figuring true cost, is the ultimate in economic rent. Is it the driver of capitalism as many claim?
The challenge for reformers and re-regulators is that the system is the problem. Companies pollute because they individually prosper while we collectively pay the costs. Banks take risks that are internally rational while they are systemically catastrophic. Environmental and financial crises cannot be solved with capitalism intact. In fact, when global warming and bank crises are considered, there is little evidence that capitalism ever produced any profits net of externalized costs. And the consolidation of wealth that capitalism produces undermines all attempts at remediation. Capitalism itself is a suicide machine. [emphasis added]
I recall one time being involved in a start-up in which there was a race to be first to market and one of the principals suggested that rigorous cost accounting prior to roll out would slow the process down, so we should just go with an estimate. You can imagine what I said to that suggestion. Why do we run entire economies that way?