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The new paper by Johns Hopkins University economist Laurence Ball, “The Fed and Lehman Brothers” (pdf), is creating quite a stir. And for good reason.

Fed officials have not been transparent about the Lehman crisis. Their explanations for their actions rest on flawed economic and legal reasoning and dubious factual claims.

Ball, on the basis of exhaustive research, calls out the officials in charge—Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson (played by William Hurt in the clip from Too Big to Fail at the top of the post), Fed chair Ben Bernanke, and New York Fed President Timothy Geithner—for not bailing out Lehman Brothers in September 2008. His argument is that the Federal Reserve did have the authority to rescue Lehman but chose not to—and they chose not to because they acceded authority to Paulson, who “feared the political firestorm that would have followed a rescue.”

Of course the decision not to rescue Lehman Brothers was political. And, if they’d taken the decision to bailout the failed global financial services firm, that would have been political, too.

The fact is, Paulson, Bernanke, and Geithner (as well as mainstream economists and other economic policymakers) were caught in their own logic of deregulating financial institutions and letting “the market” work according to its own rules (because, as Paulson admits, “they were making too much money”). That meant the emergence of a giant financial bubble—based on a toxic mix of subprime mortgages, mortgage-backed securities, and credit-default swaps—that would eventually burst. To save Lehman would have meant questioning those same private, market-based rules—with the hope that letting Lehman go under would restore order and not bring the rest of the financial system to its knees.

But, just so we understand, if they had chosen to rescue Lehman, that also would have been a political decision—to save the bankers that had made enormous profits from fees and bets on both simple and complex financial deals while, from 2007 on, everyone else was suffering from mounting foreclosures, homelessness, and unemployment.

As we know, they took the political decision not to bailout Lehman and then they covered it up, behind a series of stories—they had carefully examined the adequacy of Lehman’s collateral and they lacked the legal authority to intervene—that are convincingly disputed by Ball. Documenting the lack of transparency on the part of U.S. financial authorities about the decisions that were and were not taken in 2008 (from Bear Sterns through Lehman Brothers to AIG) is the real significance of Ball’s investigation.

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But it’s not the real political issue. Whether or not to rescue Lehman pales into insignificance when compared to two other events: the decision to let the financial system spiral out of control, and the decision not to nationalize the major financial institutions. The fact is, profits in the financial sector were enormous, reaching 40 percent of total domestic profits by the mid-2000s. It was a political decision to allow those profits to grow, even as the financial mechanisms that generated those profits were creating the financial fragility that led to the crash of 2007-08.

And then, after the crash, when the U.S. government owned an increasingly large share of the financial sector (from AIG to Ally Bank, the former GM financing arm), it was a political decision not to nationalize—or, better, not to effectively utilize the de facto nationalization of—the financial institutions it had rescued. The Obama administration and the Fed could have taken over decisionmaking in the banks, insurance companies, and government-sponsored enterprises it then owned (in exchange for the direct bailouts and other financial commitments) but they chose not to, preferring instead to negotiate payback plans and return them as quickly as possible to private ownership. That, too, was a political decision.

Ball admits “We will never know what Lehman Brothers’ long-term fate would have been if the Fed rescued it from its liquidity crisis.” True.

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But we do know what the fate of the U.S. economy has been as the result of two, much more important political decisions—to deregulate financial markets beginning in the 1990s and to not nationalize the major financial institutions after they were rescued with trillions of dollars of public financing and commitments. The first decision led directly to the crash of 2007-08, the second to the Second Great Depression and further concentration of Too Big to Fail financial institutions.

And, in the United States and around the world, we’re still living through the disastrous consequences of both of those essentially political decisions.

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Who are the capitalists?

It’s one of those questions I always pose to my students, and they always get wrong. Their mainstream economics courses don’t offer much help, since the term is never even mentioned. (I know, bizarre, since presumably what the students are being taught is a theory of capitalism, which surely includes capitalists.)

But, after scratching their heads for a while (since, clearly, they haven’t really thought about it before), they finally offer up some guesses: Shareholders? CEOs? Everyone?

Nope, I patiently and sympathetically respond. Not shareholders, since they offer money to firms in exchange for some portion of equity ownership, for which they receive a cut of the profits in the form of dividends. They’re not capitalists. Nor are the CEOs, who are hired by the capitalists to run the enterprises on a day-to-day basis.* And most of us are not capitalists, since we receive the bulk of our income in the form of wages; we don’t deploy capital to generate additional money in the form of profits.

So, my questions to them continue: What is the position of capital in corporate America? Who occupies that position? Who is the personification of capital in contemporary capitalism? Who is Mr. (and Ms.) Moneybags?

They remain stumped. And so I answer my own question: the boards of directors of capitalist corporations.

As I explained earlier this year:

The members of the boards of directors of corporations (say, of Standard & Poor’s 500 companies) are the ones who sit at the top and are ultimately responsible for the enterprises. They are the people who, during occasional meetings of the boards (for which they receive a small fee), decide the general direction of the corporation, hire and oversee top executives, and fend off crises. In other words, they occupy the position of capital and appropriate the surplus created by the workers within those enterprises. . .

Within contemporary capitalism, then, capitalists are members of corporate boards of directors. And it’s a tiny group. Given that boards are made up of 10-15 members, we’re talking about (for the leading, S&P 500 companies) only 6250 individuals. Even less (closer to 4500), if we subtract interlocking directorates, that is, individuals who sit on more than one board.

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But I was wrong—not about who occupies the position of capital, but about those “small fees.” As it turns out, according to recent research by Williams Tower Watson (a business consultancy that designs “solutions that manage risk, optimize benefits, cultivate talent and expand the power of capital to protect and strengthen institutions and individuals”), the average compensation of members of corporate boards of directors again increased last year, to $265,748 (about half in cash, the other half in stocks). That’s no “small fee” for a part-time position, which involves attending a few board meetings and offering occasional advice—and it’s a lot more than $160,000, which was the average board member’s compensation in 2006.**

So, as it turns out, the small group of individuals who occupy the position of Mr. (and, increasingly, Ms.) Moneybags not only appropriate the surplus from their workers. They also distribute to themselves a growing chunk of that surplus.

Not a bad job if you can get it. . .

 

*Corporate CEOs may not be capitalists but they’re certainly well compensated for their service to capital. According to the Economic Policy Institute [ht: sm], “in 2015, CEOs in America’s largest firms made an average of $15.5 million in compensation, which is 276 times the annual average pay of the typical worker.”

**According to Jena McGregor, “the average director would seem to be earning a little more than $1,000 an hour.”

 

 

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Sebastian Mallaby referred to Paul Romer’s scheme of building charter cities as Empire 2.0 (which is much the same connection I made back in 2010).

the largest obstacle Romer faces, by his own admission, still remains: he has to find countries willing to play the role of Britain in Hong Kong. Despite the good arguments that Romer makes for his vision, the responsibilities entailed in Empire 2.0 are not popular. How would a rich government contend with the shantytowns that might spring up around the borders of a charter city? Would it deport the inhabitants, and be accused of human-rights abuses? Or tolerate them and allow its oasis to be overrun with people who don’t respect its city charter? And what would the foreign trustee do if its host tried to nullify the lease? Would it defend its development experiment with an expeditionary army, as Margaret Thatcher defended the Falklands? A top official at one of Europe’s aid agencies told me, “Since we are responsible for our remaining overseas territories, I can tell you there is much grief in running these things. I would be surprised if Romer gets any takers.”

According to an announcement on his own blog, Romer is now headed to the World Bank.

There, Romer will be able to develop his imperial scheme—and, presumably, as I described his work last year, eliminate political “mathiness” and steer the focus of attention to “nonrival ideas” and away from capital and the real problems of growth within capitalist economies.

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