Our New Report: Defining Financialization

We’re releasing a new report today as part of the Roosevelt Institute’s Financialization Project: Definining Financialization.

Following the well-received Disgorge The Cash, this is really the foundational paper that outlines a working definition of financialization, some of the leading concerns, worries, and research topics in each area, and a plan for future research and action. Since this is what we are building from, we’d love feedback.

Prior to this, I couldn’t find a definition of financialization broad enough to account for several different trends and accessible enough for a general, nonacademic audience. So we set out to create our own solid definition of financialization that can serve as the foundation for future research and policy. That definition includes four core elements: savings, power, wealth, and society. Put another way, financialization is the growth of the financial sector, its increased power over the real economy, the explosion in the power of wealth, and the reduction of all of society to the realm of finance.

Each of these four elements is essential, and together they tell a story about the way the economy has worked, and how it hasn’t, over the past 35 years. This enables us to understand the daunting challenges involved in reforming the financial sector, document the influence of finance over society and the economy as a whole, and clarify how finance has compounded inequality and insecurity while creating an economy that works for fewer people.

Savings: The financial sector is responsible for taking our savings and putting it toward economically productive uses. However, this sector has grown larger, more profitable, and less efficient over the past 35 years. Its goal of providing needed capital to citizens and businesses has been forgotten amid an explosion of toxic mortgage deals and the predatory pursuit of excessive fees. Beyond wasting financial resources, the sector also draws talent and energy away from more productive fields. These changes constitute the first part of our definition of financialization.

Power: Perhaps more importantly, financialization is also about the increasing control and power of finance over our productive economy and traditional businesses. The recent intellectual, ideological, and legal revolutions that have pushed CEOs to prioritize the transfer of cash to shareholders over regular, important investment in productive expansion need to be understood as part of the expansion of finance.

These historically high payouts drain resources away from productive investment. But beyond investment, there are broader worries about firms that are too dominated by the short-term interests of shareholders. These dynamics increase inequality and have a negative impact on innovation. Firms only interested in shareholder returns may be less inclined to take on the long-term, risky investment in innovation that is crucial to growth. This has spillover effects on growth and wages that can create serious long-term problems for our economy. This also makes full employment more difficult to achieve, as the delinking of corporate investment from financing has posed a serious challenge for monetary policy.

Wealth: Wealth inequality has increased dramatically in the past 35 years, and financialization includes the ways in which our laws and regulations have been overhauled to protect and expand the interests of those earning income from their wealth at the expense of everyone else. Together, these factors dramatically redistribute power and wealth upward. They also put the less wealthy at a significant disadvantage.

More important than simply creating and expanding wealth claims, policy has prioritized wealth claims over competing claims on the economy, from labor to debtors to the public. This isn’t just about increasing the power of wealth; it’s about rewriting the rules of the economy to decrease the power of everyone else.

Society: Finally, following the business professor Gerald Davis, we focus on how financialization has brought about a “portfolio society,” one in which “entire categories of social life have been securitized, turned into a kind of capital” or an investment to be managed. We now view our education and labor as “human capital,” and we imagine every person as a little corporation set to manage his or her own investments. In this view, public functions and responsibilities are mere services that should be run for profit or privatized, or both.

This way of thinking results in a radical reworking of society. Social insurance once provided across society is now deemphasized in favor of individual market solutions; for example, students take on an ever-increasing amount of debt to educate themselves. Public functions are increasingly privatized and paid for through fees, creating potential rent-seeking enterprises and further redistributing income and wealth upward. This inequality spiral saps our democracy and our ability to collectively address the nation’s greatest problems.

We have a lot of future work coming from this set of definitions, including a policy agenda and FAQ on short-termism in the near future. I hope you check this out!

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