Bankers And Economists Are Not Your Friends

Margaret Atkins MunroLet's Talk About MoneyLeave a Comment

Bankers and economists are not your friends, and never have been; they are in the business of making money, and the expertise they bring to that job does not include doing what is right for you, but rather, what is right for the bank, and by extension, for them personally.

That is the lesson that I learned from Inside Job, the 2010 Oscar-winning documentary about the financial crisis that began in 2007 and continues today. As I watched, I thought that there was nothing new here, nothing I didn’t know.

If you haven’t seen the film, the film’s director describes it as “the systemic corruption of the United States by the financial services industry and the consequences of that systemic corruption.” But the corruption extends far beyond the shores of the U.S.; a recent Vanity Fair article on the meltdown of the Irish economy and the death of the Celtic Tiger (the evocative name for the Irish economic boom of the early 2000’s), the continuing distress in Iceland, the incipient default of Greece, not to mention the problems in Spain and Portugal point to financial miscalculations worldwide of enormous proportion. When even so-called healthy economies, like those in the United Kingdom and Germany, are slashing their budgets and raising their taxes, this problem continues to resonate long after the initial horror over the meltdown began.

I mention this because the horror that began with the failure of Lehman Brothers, Bear Stearns, et al. has ebbed and economies are improving. The world’s stock markets are once again scaling the heights, corporations are increasing their dividends, interest rates appear to be stable, and homes are selling. The recent jobless report in the U.S. shows only 8.8% unemployment, down almost a full percentage point from its peak in 2009. In light of all these improving economic numbers, it’s easy to sweep the decrease in the average price of homes under the carpet, and to banish the upcoming mass of home foreclosures back into the closet.

Yet, that’s exactly what we’re doing. We are back to our old ways of spending money we don’t have, of buying what we don’t need, and of waiting until tomorrow to save for the day that may never come. And we are doing this because the banks, and the economists in their pockets, are successfully convincing us that everything is okay.

Well, news flash–everything is far from okay, and the very problems that launched us into the financial crisis almost four years ago still exist. The banks are still too big to fail, there are still far too many homeowners who owe more on their homes than their homes are worth, and we are still borrowing money that we have little, if any, hope of ever repaying.

It is easy to blame the bankers. They are the ones who, according to Inside Job, see nothing wrong with making money from speculation, who feel that they are entitled to their multi-million dollar payouts even as they watch their customers drown in debt. And it’s simple to blame the economists, who apparently frame their “independent” economic advice to support whatever industry is paying them, and feel no obligation to disclose that they are receiving rather magnificent payments, in some cases, from the industries they are analyzing.

But we are equally complicit. We have abdicated responsibility for our economic decisions to these very bankers and economists who are merely talking mouths with a product to sell. While we demand that sugary sodas be prominently labeled as having no nutritional value, we do not insist on the same level of disclosure in our financial products; instead, what caveats do exist are buried in miniscule type and couched in a level of legalese that would tax the brain of a Supreme Court Justice.

We must increase regulation of the banking and financial industries. Regulation, that very dirty word, has been shrunk, reduced, and almost completely eliminated since the dawn of the Reagan era. Bankers and economists will point out that increasing regulation will inhibit innovation, stifle job production and growth, and prevent many people from even owning their own homes. My answer to that is to look around; the lack of regulation leading to the Great Recession led to the loss of over 7 million jobs and millions of home foreclosures. How can any thinking person equate abandoning regulation with the public’s best interest? Increasing regulation will help to balance risk with reward, and provide the small business and individual consumer with some necessary protections.

We assume that economists and bankers know what they’re talking about and have our best interests at heart. But in this American meritocracy, corporate self-interest and greed have channelled wealth away from the average person and firmly into the hands of a financial elite (most of whom declined to be interviewed for the film), whose only comment regarding their business is that “it’s complicated.”

Try me.