Finance Must Be Put Back in Its Place

The G20 display a desire to limit the instability of the financial sector. If it succeeds, it will still have to put that sector back to serving the economy.

Is the power of finance unlimited? During the 2000s, bankers, hedge funds, and other financiers enriched themselves by feeding a speculative frenzy of historic scope. Governments had to mobilize trillions of euros to save the banks and avoid having the economy plunge into depression.

Practically two and a half years after the fall of Lehman Brothers, what has changed? On the face of it, nothing. The banks rushed to reimburse governmental aid – and find themselves with their hands free once again. The markets continue to speculate to their hearts’ content. They profit from an instability that they are the first to foster, since the more volatility there is, the more bets there are to be made and the more money is to be made. And as they, in fact, are making a great deal of money, the bonuses ensue. Business as usual.

However, at the same time that they were managing the emergency, the big countries opened vast regulatory construction sites intended to contain the power of finance. That’s what played out at the G20. It is fashionable among intellectuals, on the right as well as on the left, to describe this official body as the “G Futility”: more than two and a half years after Lehman’s bankruptcy, the world, in fact, is still waiting for actually-implemented new regulatory policies. But let us recall that after the crisis in 1929, the United States did not begin to regulate finance until 1933, and that after the financial panic it experienced in 1907, it took until 1913 for the country to create … a central bank. And it did not have to come to an agreement with 19 other countries!

In fact, when we go to the trouble of looking under the hood, of sticking our hands in the dirty grease of technical proposals, the viewpoint changes. Institutions for the control of the financial sector have been created or strengthened. Precise policies have been defined and all the work sites are making some kind of progress. Moreover, the banks and hedge funds have not been fooled: the danger is such that they are using all their political power to resist. Nothing says they won’t emerge the winners, with minimal regulation. The battle is playing out right now and the outcome is not determined.

Should it succeed in spite of the dissension between countries and the intense lobbying of financial establishments, the G20 will reduce – for a little while, at least – the financial sector’s power to do harm and its chronic instability. That will be progress, but it will remain inadequate. Afterwards, we’ll have to put finance back into the service of the economy. Which requires more ambitious measures conveying an in-depth change in the behavior of banks, their shareholders and also governments.

Translation: Truthout French Language Editor Leslie Thatcher.