Oct 17, 2009

Banks

I'm just reading a book on the robber barons called, strangely enough, the Robber Barons. It's the famous old Matthew Josephson work. Surely they put modern capitalists to shame as far as sheer brutality. When financial/boardroom intrigue was not enough to secure their business aims, there was always dynamite.

But I think the one thing you've got to respect about that era of American history was that these men often took real risks. Sure, most of them stole vast piles of currency or land from the government, or invested taxpayer dollars while protecting their own, or wasted huge treasury sums because it would be slightly cheaper for themselves thusly. But these men were playing for keeps, and often as not they would end up crushed and ruined by their capitalist brethren. Every 10-20 years some doofus's land scheme or gold-cornering ploy would collapse like a ton of bricks and lay the whole stock market out for a couple years, and rich men would suffer catastrophic losses.

Not so for today's incarnation of these "captains of industry." None of these pathetic financiers has the steel of a Vanderbilt, a Rockefeller, a (ha ha) Carnegie. Some of those old tycoons had such dizzying wealth (Rockefeller's fortune today would be worth about $320 billion) that in all likelihood the government couldn't have bailed them out even if they tried.

As Kevin Drum says:
As the piece points out, banks aren't using all this cheap money to increase lending. They're using it to fund bigger and bigger bets in the fixed-income sector — the same sector that brought us junk bonds, credit default swaps, subprime loan securitization, interest rate carries, collateralized debt obligations, and all the rest of Warren Buffett's "financial weapons of mass destruction." Fixed income was a sleepy backwater until about 30 years ago, and if we had any brains we'd apply a massive dose of regulatory narcotics to make it that way again. Instead, we're actually egging it on. It's like giving Nero a new barbecue lighter for Christmas because his last one got burned up in that big fire.
It's not like I'm pining for the gilded age. It's just the pathetic, weaselly simpering of today's megabankers that makes me sick. What slime.

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