Banks behaving badly

It’s five years since Northern Rock hit the rocks, and four years since Lehman Brothers went bust. The banking system remains fragile, a number of Eurozone banks still posing a threat of global systemic instability. Regulatory reform creeps ahead, slowly, very slowly, and (as Andy Haldane pointed out in his paper The Dog and The Frisbee) will not work anyway. In other words, after half a decade the financial crisis is still in full swing. We are all paying for it in direct taxpayer subventions, through the central banks massively subsidising banks’ costs, and through slow growth – the latest US figures showing real median incomes at their lowest since 1995 – 1995! –  illustrate the point starkly.

So I was shocked an angry to read a small article in the second section of the FT this morning (Banks Force Aluminium Market Shake-Up) pointing out that big investment banks have started speculating in aluminium. At a time of slow global growth, metals prices should be falling. Instead, there has been a 50% increase this year in aluminium because Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan and the like are buying up large stocks and warehousing them to restrict supply.

“The increasingly dominant role of banks including Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan and Deutsche Bank – as well as traders such as Glencore – has prompted a surge to record levels in the premium consumers pay for metal over the benchmark price set at the London Metal Exchange.”

This comes on the back of evidence that investment bank speculation on food commodities through new indices (launched by Goldmans) made a significant contribution to the increases in food prices in recent years.

Is anybody else angered by this? And why are politicians and regulators as silent on this front as they have been until very recently on the use of the financial system for tax avoidance and money laundering? A number of books have flagged up these behaviours in banking – Nicholas Shaxson’s , Misha Glenny’s  and , Matt Taibbi’s early ‘vampire squid’ intervention in  – and other journalists have been covering the dark side of banking. But there is no salience for these issues in policy and political circles. Why aren’t central banks concerned about soaring commodity inflation when the economy is flat, and the deliberate market distortions causing it?

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Who is responsible for the Greek debt crisis?

The headlines are full of Greek politics – will the country opt out of the austerity/bailout/Euro package or not? It seems the rest of the Eurozone is presenting the issue as an ultimatum.

It set me to wondering why there hasn’t been more discussion about exactly what the terms of the bailout cover, and why. Because it was a shock to learn – via Paul Seabright’s recent Princeton in Europe lecture – that by 2008 Greece had become the world’s fifth biggest arms importer (pdf), and the second and third biggest customer for German and French arms exporters respectively, presumably in deals financed by German and French banks. Even in 2011, Greece’s defence spending amounted to 3.2% of GDP, the highest in Europe as a share of GDP,  and $1230 per Greek citizen.

(Parochial note – the UK is the world’s 5th biggest arms exporter, Europe’s 3rd behind France and Germany, and our biggest customers by 2008 were the US, India and Chile.)

Stopping the purchases would make a handy dent in the 9% of GDP budget deficit. So surely would ending interest payments – even defaulting – on those loans that financed the earlier arms build-up. If German and French banks were encouraged to extend them by their governments for geopolitical reasons, then those governments should take responsibility and face their own taxpayers, rather than placing the whole burden on Greek taxpayers.

This obviously isn’t the whole story. After all, not that many Greeks are taxpayers (only just over half, it seems), so there is definitely a need for Greece to face up to its own responsibilities too. But I find it odd that the story about Greece’s astonishing military build-up isn’t better known. All I could find is one Guardian article that mentioned it.

The data source is the highly-regarded . This is one of the shadowy areas of the global economy that economists don’t discuss enough, along with the outright illegal economy – as I touched on at the weekend with a little rant about the vampire cephalopods of the global economy.

[amazon_image id=”0199695520″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]SIPRI Yearbook 2011: Armaments, Disarmament and International Security (SIPRI Yearbook Series)[/amazon_image]

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In the tentacles of vampire cephalopods

The next book I read is going to be Grigory Yavlinsky’s . On paging through, it’s apparent that the book is about the moral and social norms then permit the market economy to function well – and their breakdown as a major contributory factor to the crisis. I’m sure I’ll agree – it was a big theme of  (out soon in Italian by the way as Economia dell’abbastanza). Yavlinksy – an architect of Russia’s transition to a market economy –  ends with a call for a restoration of moral principles in politics and the implementation of public policy.

If only it were as easy as the kind of people who go into politics deciding they have to act in the public interest. That’s a good start, obviously. However, the book has just one sentence that touches on oligarchy and doesn’t mention the illegal economy at all. New estimates suggest the shadow economy ranges in size from 18% of GDP on average in the EU to 40% in Sub-Saharan Africa, 35% in the post-socialist economies. That’s £1 in every £5 or £3 respectively generated outside the law and the tax system. Activity on this huge scale must be facilitated by both the banking system and by law enforcement turning a blind eye.

And then there are the legal ‘vampire squids’, to apply  brilliant image to the still-in-denial banking industry. The world economy is ententacled by vampire cephalopods, whether operating inside or outside the law. Of course social norms must change, but I fear that won’t be enough.

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