The size of the financial industry bears no relation to the economy. Self-mythological panegyrics aside, the finance industry confiscates money; it doesn’t create it. How much? Get out your calculators, and maybe you’ll have to find a way to add a couple of digits to what your screen can hold.
Perhaps the total amount of money extracted by financiers (or, more to the point, speculators) is not quite as large as Douglas Adams’ description of space in the, yes, increasingly inaccurately named Hitchhikers’ Trilogy, as “Really big. You just won’t believe how vastly hugely mind-bogglingly big it is.” But it’s close.
OK, let’s put down a couple of numbers here. The numbers on their own are so absurd as to defy easy comprehension, so let’s try to find a way to situate them.
- Total amount of debt outstanding: US$305 trillion (€304 trillion).
- Total amount of financial instruments traded, on average, per day: US$9.68 trillion (€9.65 trillion).
Yep, that’s a whole lot of money. So big that the imagination struggles to grasp such numbers. One way to put those numbers in perspective is that the size of the world economy (global gross domestic product for all the world’s countries) was US$96.1 trillion (€95.8 trillion) in 2021.
In other words, the volume of currency trading (foreign exchange), stocks, bonds and their derivatives exceeds the size of the global economy in 10 business days. (The period is almost certainly a little less, as that US$9.68 trillion in average daily trading doesn’t include most government bonds, trading figures for which are difficult to come by.) To create another comparison, the amount of debt owed by the world’s governments, businesses and households (the $305 trillion total above) is more than three and a half times of the value of all economic activity produced in a year.
Still another way to look at this activity is that foreign exchange trading (including swaps, options, spot transactions and outright forwards) in one day is bigger than the economies of all countries other than the United States and China. Given that the U.S. dollar, the world’s reserve currency, is involved in 88 percent of foreign exchange trades, trading in the dollar by itself totals more than a year’s production of all countries other than itself and China.
A multi-headed monster that is never satiated
Rolling Stone magazine once memorably described Goldman Sachs as a “great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity.” That makes finance capital as a whole a multi-headed monster with the attributes of a tyrannosaurus rex, killer whale, giant squid and elephant that can swallow ships at sea whole, fly through the air at supersonic speed and never stops eating. Or something like that. Perhaps some planet-eating monster in a science fiction potboiler? Maybe we can fall back on Douglas Adams after all, and just consider the financial industry vastly hugely mind-bogglingly big.
And getting bigger. When I last did this exercise 10 years ago, it took about 11 business days for speculators to trade financial instruments and contracts valued at all the products and services produced by the entire world in one year. Now it’s 10 days. There’s progress for you.
There is no rational economic reason for a financial industry — and “bloated” would be woefully inadequate to describe it — even a fraction of this size. Most of the action on stock exchanges is simply speculation. Greed is certainly a part of the picture, but by no means the entire picture. Because there are insufficient opportunities for investment, more money is diverted into speculation. As ever bigger piles of money are diverted into speculation, the size of the financial industry and the percentage of corporate profits claimed by the financial industry steadily grows. This capital is a function of the amount of money flowing upward to the rich becoming larger than they can use for personal luxury consumption or investment; these torrents of money are diverted into increasingly risky pure speculation.
Too much money comes to chase too few assets, rapidly bidding up prices until there is no possible revenue stream that can sustain the price of assets bought at inflated levels. Not altogether different from those Warner Brothers cartoons in which the character walks off a cliff, takes several steps suspended in air before looking down, sees there is nothing but air below and then falls, at some point speculators look down and notice they have no support, mass panic commences and prices collapse, bringing on another economic downturn. One that working people, not speculators, will pay for.
The very size of financial markets is a major contributing cause of economic instability. Financial companies, having extracted immense sums of bailout money after the 2008 collapse, have leveraged their power to become even bigger through consolidation, thereby enabling them to divert more capital from productive use. But even during the “boom” portion of business cycles financiers are destructive to an economy by rewarding manufacturers for mass layoffs, moving production to low-wage developing countries with few or no effective labor or environmental laws, and setting up subsidiaries overseas and using creative accounting to shift profits offshore to avoid paying taxes. Financiers provide rewards for such behavior in the form of rising stock prices, and those stock prices in turn provide top executives a rationale to give themselves stratospheric pay packages because they “enhanced shareholder value.”
In turn, there is continual downward pressure on wages — an increasing share of corporate revenues go toward executive pay and profits as the share going toward wages declines. And much of those corporate profits are quickly funneled into dividends and stock buybacks, yet more ways for money to move upward into the ever grasping hands of super-wealthy speculators.
As I wrote back in June, the corporations of North America, Europe and Japan handed out an astounding US$2.75 trillion (€2.63 trillion at then exchange rates) to shareholders in 2021 through dividend payments and stock buybacks. By February 2022, the amount of money created by the central banks of five of the world’s biggest economies for the purpose of artificially propping up financial markets since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic totaled US$9.94 trillion (€8.76 trillion). That is on top of the US$9.36 trillion (€8.3 trillion at the early 2020 exchange rate) that was spent on propping up financial markets in the years following the 2008 global economic collapse. That’s US$19.3 trillion (€17.1 trillion) in the span of 14 years, and this astounding sum of subsidies and handouts represents only one program of the many used by the U.S. Federal Reserve, the European Central Bank, Bank of Japan, Bank of England and Bank of Canada.
Crash to crash, but it’s you who is supposed to fall down
How could a parasitic industry grow to such gargantuan proportions? In theory, stock markets exist to distribute investment capital to where it is needed and to enable corporations to raise money for investment or other purposes. In real life, neither is really true. A corporation with stock traded on an exchange can use that status to issue new shares, raising money without the burden of dealing with lenders and paying them interest. But large corporations can raise money in a variety of ways, for example by issuing bonds or other interest-bearing debt, or by selling shares directly to private investors. Nor do corporations necessarily wish to float new stock — doing so is disliked by investors because profits are diluted when spread among more shares. Instead, it is more common for large companies to buy back shares of their stock (at a premium to the trading price), which means less sharing of distributed profits. And thus the steady increase in buybacks, which combined with dividends, in some years exceeds the total of profits!
And what of distributing investment capital to where it is needed? That is saying, in so many words, that stock markets make finance more efficient — that capital will be put to use in the industries or companies in which a high profit is seen as a good bet because a company is filling a need with a product but lacks sufficient capital to take full advantage, or that the company already has a history of delivering profits. At bottom, buying stock is a gamble on the future profits of the company in which stock is bought. An investor is betting that profits will not only rise, but rise at a faster rate than in the past. I at one time worked on a financial news wire service, and one day was surprised when the stock price of a well-known technology company fell despite announcing it had earned a profit of $800 million for the previous three months, a higher profit than the same quarter in the previous year. On closer examination, the company was punished by speculators because the rate of the increase of the profit did not increase — this gigantic profit was lower than what stock market “analysts” had predicted.
This illustrates that trading is primarily done for speculation, not for any rational economic reason. The beginnings of the financial industry lie in the very slow rate of business in the early days of capitalism; it could take years for an investment made on the other side of the globe to pay off. Thus financiers stepped in to provide cash liquidity. But because financial speculation doesn’t have the physical limitations of the production of tangible goods, speculation would become prominent. Indeed, financial crashes long predate the crashes of 1929 and 2008. “Tulip mania” consumed the Dutch in the 1630s, speculation fueled by the first futures contracts; uncontrolled speculation in the 1710s in the English South Sea Company and the French Company of the Indies led to the collapse of stock in both, a bubble in which short selling was born; an 1830s bubble in U.S. real estate burst when banks stopped making payments; and an 1870s bubble inflated by speculation in railroads and construction in North America and Europe burst when the Vienna stock market crashed, followed by waves of bank failures, to note some of the more well-known examples.
The world’s billionaires and multi-national corporations profited enormously from the Covid-19 pandemic, enormously inflating their wealth. Not surprisingly, debt increased dramatically as well. The 2020 increase in debt was the biggest for any year since World War II, according to the International Monetary Fund.
Half of the 2020 increase in debt was governmental, again no surprise given the trillions handed out to financial institutions that year. According to the IMF, “Debt increases are particularly striking in advanced economies, where public debt rose from around 70 percent of GDP, in 2007, to 124 percent of GDP, in 2020. Private debt, on the other hand, rose at a more moderate pace from 164 to 178 percent of GDP, in the same period. … Public debt now accounts for almost 40 percent of total global debt, the highest share since the mid-1960s.”
Extracting money from those who work
It should always be remembered that profit comes from a capitalist paying to employees much less than the value of what they produce. In turn, the financial industry extracts money from the producers of tangible goods and services, and often from governments as well. Finance capital seeks to profit off any and all economic activity anywhere, regardless of cost to everybody else. It’s incredibly profitable — not only are investment banks among the most profitable corporations, but speculators can rake in hundreds of millions and even billions of dollars annually — and they pay less in taxes that you do!
Not even the biggest corporations are immune from financial industry pressure. Several years ago, DuPont, the chemical multi-national that produces many products that dominate their market, had racked up about US$17.8 billion in profits over five years, handed out $4 billion to shareholders from the proceeds of selling its performance chemicals business and boasted a one-year increase in its stock price of 20 percent. Yet a powerful hedge-fund manager declared war on DuPont management, demanding DuPont be broken up into two companies, under the theory that more profit could be extracted. The speculator did not get what he wanted, but DuPont did lay off workers to appease speculators despite its massive profitability. Ultimately, DuPont merged with Dow Chemical and then the combined conglomerate split into three companies, maneuvering done mainly to throw more cash at speculators.
Even Wal-Mart is not ruthless enough for Wall Street. After five years of massive profits (US$80 billion), speculators began driving down the price of Wal-Mart stock in part because the company had raised its minimum wage to $9 an hour. Wal-Mart did attempt to offset that news by also announcing a new $20 billion buyback of shares, but not even blowing that kiss to financiers served to lift speculator moods. Thus the company that is the most ruthless in accelerating the trend of moving manufacturing to the locations with the lowest wages, legendary for its relentless pressure on its suppliers to manufacture at such low cost that they have no choice but to move their production to China, or Bangladesh, or Vietnam, because the suppliers can’t pay more than starvation wages and remain in business, was deemed by financiers to be insufficiently brutal.
As always, it’s heads, Wall Street wins and tails, Wall Street wins. Those fantastic values of financial instruments traded don’t fall from the sky and aren’t because of some rare acumen of speculators. Those sums of money, which would put orbiting satellites at risk if they were stacked up, are the direct result of exploitation of those who work.