The Midas syndrome

Concerns about the future of the financial system have grabbed the headlines both in this country and abroad. In Greece, a proposal by Piraeus Bank to acquire the state’s stakes in ATEbank and Hellenic Postbank has met with a great deal of skepticism, as the privatization would take place using state money. In the United States, President Barack Obama has pushed the broadest overhaul of financial rules since Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. Meanwhile, EU governments are awaiting the publication of the so-called «stress tests» that will show how resilient European banks are to economic shocks. The outcome could bring about major mergers and takeovers. The truth is that the deepest crisis in the postwar period, which began with the subprime mortgage crisis and peaked with the collapse of Lehman Brothers, has hit the financial sector above all. It has been banks, rather than businesses, that have borne the brunt of attacks, which were often superficial. History is no stranger to populist movements that redirected popular anger at the economic crisis to «greedy bankers.» Contrary to this convenient radicalism, Karl Marx believed that credit was central to growth to the extent that it pumps unused capital into the industry and expands a society’s productive capability. However, over the past 30 years, the financial sector has grown extremely big compared to actual production – the derivatives market now dwarfs the world’s gross domestic product. Seen in this light, the crisis of 2008 was a nemesis for global capitalism which started to look a lot like Midas, the legendary king who turned everything he touched into gold but was left with nothing to eat. Meanwhile, the precipitous expansion of credit (credit cards, home and consumer loans) provided a way to maintain consumption at high levels against a trend of stagnant incomes. The European Central Bank has for years provided Greek, Spanish and Portuguese banks with cheap money so that local consumers could buy German, Dutch and French products. Notwithstanding the dire consequences of a lender-induced financial binge, these banks expect to take 43 billion euros from the state to survive the credit crunch and then may use that same money to buy state-owned banks.

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