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08/22/2011
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Out of Control

The Destructive Power of the Financial Markets

AFP

Speculators are betting against the euro, banks are taking incalculable risks and the markets are in turmoil. Three years after the Lehman Brothers bankruptcy, the financial industry has become a threat to the global economy again. Governments missed the chance to regulate the industry, and another crash is just a matter of time. By SPIEGEL Staff.

The enemy looks friendly and unpretentious. With his scuffed shoes and thinning gray hair, John Taylor resembles an elderly sociology professor. Books line the dark, floor-to-ceiling wooden shelves in his office in Manhattan, alongside a bust of Theodore Roosevelt and an antique telescope.

Taylor is the chairman and CEO of FX Concepts, a hedge fund that specializes in currency speculation. It's the largest hedge fund of its kind worldwide, which is why Taylor is held partly responsible for the crash of the euro. Critics accuse Taylor and others like him of having exacerbated the government crisis in Greece and accelerated the collapse in Ireland.

People like Taylor are "like a pack of wolves" that seeks to tear entire countries to pieces, said Swedish Finance Minister Anders Borg. For that reason, they should be fought "without mercy," French President Nicolas Sarkozy raged. Andrew Cuomo, the former attorney general and current governor of New York, once likened short-sellers to "looters after a hurricane."

The German tabloid newspaper Bild sharply criticized Taylor on its website, writing: "This man is betting against the euro." If that is what he is doing, he is certainly successful. While Greece is threatened with bankruptcy, Taylor is listed among the world's 25 highest-paid hedge fund managers.

A well-read man, Taylor likes to philosophize about the Congress of Vienna and the Treaties of Rome. But is this man really out to speculate the euro to death? And does he have Greece on his conscience?

Taylor grimaces and sighs. He was expecting these questions. "The big problem is that in some cases these politicians are looking for the easy way out and want to blame somebody else and say speculators are taking Europe apart, taking the euro down and ruining the prosperity of our country," he says, characterizing such charges against hedge fund managers as "nonsense." "My capital isn't the capital of the Rothschilds," he says, insisting that he is working with the "capital of the people," and that his goal is to protect and increase this capital. Taylor points out that no one from any of the German pension funds that invest their money with him has ever called him on the phone to tell him not to bet against the euro.

Markets Control Politicians

Taylor's arguments echo those of everyone in the financial industry -- the executives, the bankers and the big fund managers. They all insist that they are not responsible for the crisis in the euro zone and the turbulence in the financial markets, and that their actions are purely rational and in the interest of their investors.

The truth is that the financial markets are controlling the politicians. If Sarkozy interrupts his vacation, the markets interpret his sudden return as a sign that the situation there is worse than they thought -- and promptly set their sights on the country. And if there is an argument between Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and Finance Minister Giulio Tremonti, then the markets target Italy, because they doubt that the Italian government is serious about introducing austerity measures. The markets take advantage of every weakness and every rumor to speculate against one country after the next.

In doing so, they aggravate the crisis. Once a country has become the subject of rumors and speculation, other investors become nervous. Fearing further price declines, pension funds and insurance companies also start selling stocks and bonds. In the end, fear nurtures fear and a panic ensues.

Stock markets are currently in turmoil. Even the most experienced equity traders cannot remember a time when prices fluctuated as widely from day to day -- and often even within a single day -- as they have in recent weeks. The German stock index, the DAX, fell by 5.8 percent last Thursday and lost another 2.2 percent the next day.

There is no calm in sight for the global economy. Sharp declines on the stock market and crises have become an everyday reality. This raises the question of why the financial markets are so erratic. They have developed into a permanent threat to the global economy. But what can be done to avert this risk?

It cannot be a coincidence that the number and scope of disruptions have increased with the expansion of the financial industry. The Asian financial crisis in the 1990s was followed by the bursting of the Internet bubble at the turn of the millennium. When Lehman Brothers went bankrupt in 2008, the financial world suddenly found itself on the brink of collapse. Now that the euro is at risk, and millions of people are afraid of their currency collapsing. A number of countries, including the United States, are groaning under debt burdens that run into the trillions.

Incalculable Risk

Naturally the financial industry -- all those who trade in securities, currencies, money and the products derived from them, known as derivatives -- is not responsible for all the crises in the global economy. Politicians also share some of the blame, for having accumulated too much debt and given the banks too much leeway. But without the destructive power of the banks, hedge funds and other investment companies, the world would not be where it is today -- at the edge of an abyss.

The financial industry grew rapidly, as did the sums of money with which its players speculated on the prices of stocks, commodities and government bonds. The products they developed to turn money into even more money became more and more complex. At the same time, the risks they were willing to accept became incalculable.

The sector's high salaries tend to attract the best and brightest university graduates. The members of this youthful elite don't devise new products that make people's lives better, nor do they found new companies that further progress. Instead, these young financial wizards invest a great deal of money and effort to develop sophisticated financial products, the sole purpose of which is to generate more profit for both their employers and, ultimately, for themselves -- sometimes at the expense of other market players or even their customers.

Many things that happen on Wall Street and in London's financial district are "socially useless," says Lord Adair Turner, chairman of Britain's Financial Services Authority (FSA). The values that are created there are often not real or of any use to society, Turner adds. Paul Volcker, the former chairman of the US Federal Reserve, once remarked that the only truly useful financial innovation in the past 20 years is the cash machine.

Once upon a time, the sole purpose of banks was to supply the economy with money. They were service providers, sources of energy for the economy, so to speak, but nothing more. But now the financial industry has largely disconnected itself from the manufacturing economy, transforming its role from subservient to dominant in the process.

The potential upshot of this shift became evident less than three years ago. The banks had excessively foisted mortgages on Americans without paying much attention to their customers' ability to repay these loans. They packaged the risks into new financial products and sold them on. But apparently very few people understood how these products actually worked. When the subprime bubble finally burst, it dragged down the entire financial industry with it. The major financial firms found themselves on the brink of bankruptcy and were forced to appeal to the government for help.

Lost Opportunity

The assistance was provided, but a historic opportunity was squandered in the process. None of the powerful banks was broken up, and only a few of the dangerous financial products were banned. With the central banks lending money at low rates, speculation could continue.

The financial industry recovered quickly as a result, and now it is just as powerful as it was before the crisis -- and just as dangerous, for both the economy and society as a whole.

Even passionate advocates of the market economy are now questioning how an economic system that functioned so well for so long could spin dangerously out of control. In a hard-hitting opinion piece in the Daily Telegraph on July 30, British journalist Charles Moore sharply criticized the banks for keeping profits while passing on losses to taxpayers. "The banks only 'come home' when they have run out of our money," he wrote. "Then our governments give them more."

Moore asks himself whether the left, with its criticism of the capitalist system, might actually be right. The prominent German journalist Frank Schirrmacher, expounding on Moore's commentary in the Sunday edition of the conservative Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, wrote that a decade of economic policies based on loosely regulated financial markets is proving to be the "most successful" way to make the left-wing critique of free-market capitalism, which had fallen out of favor, popular again.

Western societies have seldom been more divided, and never have income disparities been as great as they are today. In no other industry can someone get rich as quickly as in the financial industry, where investment bankers divide up a large share of the profits among themselves and hedge-fund managers earn annual incomes in the millions -- and sometimes even in the billions.

At the same time, the markets are constantly demanding higher returns. Those who do not meet their expectations are punished with declines in the price of their stock and higher borrowing costs. Companies, forced to adjust to these requirements, keep wages down and their workforces at a minimum.

These differences are especially glaring in London, Europe's most important financial center. Bankers live in the lap of luxury in the city's exclusive neighborhoods, while poor neighborhoods are home to people who have abandoned all hope. Many observers see this disparity and loss of hope as one of the causes of the recent unrest.

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