Financial scandals, rigging the game and Godzilla

Godzilla is a Japanese-originated monster character, whose main features are its incredible bulk, its melange of gorilla-like and reptilian aspects, its gargantuan appetite, and its monumentally destructive capacity. Capable of feats of enormous strength, it can defeat other mega-monsters, emitting radiation similar to that of nuclear fission thus poisoning its environs, and terrorises its enemies while leaving a path of death and destruction in its wake. It is normally represented as a towering, dinosaur-like creature, exhibiting the features of terrestrial vertebrates, and also undulating its gigantic tail similar to a crocodile. Godzilla occupies a similar place in Japanese film culture as King Kong does in Western societies; an oversized monster driven by rapacious appetites, hostility to human society and capable of causing catastrophic destruction.

Godzilla (and King Kong) occupy a niche place in the cultural world, however, there is an equivalent in the modern world. Bankzilla, the enormous, rapacious, socially destructive corporation embodied by the large banks and financial institutions, are raking in super profits while the rest of humanity, the 99 percent, are struggling with declining incomes, reduced job prospects, foreclosures and financial strain. The US Socialist Worker reported that “To this day, Bankzilla continues to terrorize whole communities of homeowners while feasting on massive profits.” As Eric Ruder documented in this article, while the economic crisis hit the global community back in 2008-09, the large financial corporations insulated themselves from the worst of the financial disaster they had created. The cost of the ‘recovery’ would be shifted onto the working people. The rate of foreclosures increased, with tent cities arising in major US cities due to the unprecedented hike in mortgage defaults. But the owners of the Wall Street corporations were not complaining; they still managed to obtain super-profits while enjoying essentials such as a personal, nine-hole golf course. This was on top of the 700 billion dollar Troubled Asset Relief Programme (TARP) passed by the Democrats and Republicans in the US Congress.

What is under-reported is that the massive, taxpayer funded bailout for the ‘too-big-to-fail’ banks has not actually resulted in an economic recovery. If anything, lending by the big banks has actually decreased for the first three months of 2012. The CNN Finance Fortune article cited above elaborates that

“When banks cut their lending, it makes it harder for small businesses to get money to expand. But a drop in lending could also signal a drop in demand for loans, meaning businesses and individual don’t want to borrow because they are worried about the economy.”

A combined amount of 24 billion dollars was cut from lending by J P Morgan Chase, Wells Fargo, Bank of America and Citigroup in the first quarter of 2012. These are not exactly small corner stores, but enormous pillars of the finance-banking sector. The largest drops in lending were recorded in credit card loans (consumer credit) and home equity lines of credit.

The Obama administration, since coming to power in the wake of the November 2008 elections, has acted as a protector and abetter of the financial aristocracy. Not only has the previous criminality of the financial institutions not abated, but more scandals are coming to light. The Libor scandal, which involves rigging the London Interbank Exchange Rate to a level advantageous for the large banking institutions, was exposed only recently even though its antecedents date back four years. A massive case of insider trading, the Libor scandal has exposed the rotting criminality of the capitalist financial architecture.

A bank lends and borrows money – that is understood by everyone. The acts of borrowing and lending are accompanied by interest payments. Borrowing money means that you pay interest on the loan repayment, placing savings in a bank means the saver is paid interest on those savings. How are the interest rates determined? The banking experts, given their expertise and knowledge of the world of finance, set the interest rates based on the confidence that their loans will be repaid. The cumulative knowledge of thousands of banker lenders and borrowers are analysed, supply and demand for money is assessed, and the requisite interest rate is established. Libor, the London Interbank Exchange Rate, is the average rate of interest established by the major banks in England when borrowing from other banks. The Libor serves as a benchmark for mortgages, business loans, personal loans, derivatives, credit default swaps, the interest rate on student loans – in short, it provides a benchmark for trillions of dollars worth of loans and finance.

It turns out that the Libor was being rigged, manipulated by the major financial institutions. Starting with Barclays bank, whose top executives resigned and paid out a fine to American and British regulators, the depth of financial criminality has been steadily coming to light. Barclays chief executives defended themselves by stating that they had done nothing wrong – because everybody was doing the same thing. The Euribor, the Brussels-based counterpart of Libor, is also being investigated for manipulation. As Petrino DiLeo explains in the Socialist Worker:

More than a dozen other banks are also being investigated for similar manipulation, including Bank of America, Citigroup, Royal Bank of Scotland Group and UBS. More fines, lawsuits and resignations may be in the offing. And there’s mounting evidence that government officials and central bankers were in on the scam, too. As the facts continue to come out, “Liborgate” may end up being the mother of all banking scandals.

The magazine Dollars and Sense noted, when the US economy was stumbling towards the largest crisis since the great depression of the 1930s, the US administration rushed to provide bailout money through the TARP mechanism. The large privately-owned banks and financial institutions were deemed ‘too-big-to-fail’. Currently, numerous state municipalities and local government authorities are facing a financial crisis because they invested in interest rate swaps. While normally borrowing on the basis of the floating exchange rate, the municipalities were offered a seemingly advantageous deal by the Wall Street giants – interest rate swaps. State authorities – responsible for public services and public salaries, pegged their floating-rate debt to a fixed interest rate debt agreed to by the banks. The participant with the higher interest rate had to pay the difference to their partner. While a fixed interest rate seemed like a positive development, the interest rate was set by the major banks, which was established by manipulated mechanisms, like Libor.

The municipalities have been saddled with a fixed interest rate repayment, while the floating interest rates declined in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis. The public institutions were now required to pay billions in interest repayments to the large banks, while cutting back public services and employment. These interest rate swaps are a widely used derivative device; mechanisms that were at the heart of the original financial meltdown.

The Libor scandal, growing out of the financial catastrophe of 2008, has its historic origins in an earlier measure implemented by the major imperialist powers – bank deregulation. This was the theory that opening up banks and financial institutions to ‘competition’ would lead to greater choice for the individual consumer, loans with cheaper interest rates, and a healthier economic ‘trickle down’ of wealth. Since the mid-1980s, bank deregulation has lead to the monopolisation of the banking and finance sector by a tiny, financial aristocracy, and a transfer of wealth from the working class, the 99 percent, to the richest one percent. The chaos and financial ruin exemplified by Libor arises from an unregulated system, where actually the largest privately-owned corporations end up setting the rules by themselves. The British Bankers’ Association (BBA), the main privately-controlled banking trade and lobby group, was headed by Marcus Agius. Agius was also one of the chief executives of Barclays, and heavily implicated in the Libor manipulation scandal. Agius has resigned his position, but the incestuous, nepotistic relationship between the BBA and the banking-finance sector continues.

The Guardian newspaper noted that in the 1960s and 1970s, a range of strict regulations, capital and liquidity ratios, and limits on excessive mortgage lending, were applied to the banking sector. Since the mid-1980s, as the capitalist classes around the world went on an offensive, attacking the living standards, the job provisions, health and safety regulations that provided a measure of security for workers, bank regulations were also sacrificed on the altar of the ‘free-market’ dogma. The Libor scandal, while correctly called the ‘crime of the century’, represents more than that.

The financial scandals engulfing the financial elite of Europe and America are an indication that we are living in the era of the ‘anti-1989’. In the wake of the collapse of the former socialist countries of Eastern Europe, the capitalist elites went on a triumphalist frenzy of gloating – the socialist project seemed to have been swept away, and not just the bureaucratically deformed version of it that had obtained prior to 1989 in Eastern Europe. Francis Fukuyama, a professor of political science, enunciated the feeble ‘end-of-history’ thesis, arguing that ‘free-market’ capitalism had proven its superiority over all challenges, and ruling over societies that consented to adopt the capitalist system. Fukuyama took a Hegelian turn and conceived of the capitalist system as the final end-point, the omnipotent state to which we all aspire, much like Hegel in the nineteenth century regarded the monarchist Prussian state.

However, we are now living in the Anti-1989 era. Another nineteenth century thinker, examining the laws of motion of the capitalist system, found that the insoluble contradictions of that system would lead to its inevitable breakdown. Appropriating the same philosophical tools that Hegel used (and Fukuyama alleged borrowed), this thinker elaborated how the capitalist system works, and how it will eventually rot from within. While working class revolution is not on the immediate agenda, the current period is witnessing the re-awakening of the working class as a serious political force. The 1989 consensus that liberal capitalism is the end point of civilisation, has been reduced to ashes.

With the capitalist financial architecture crumbling, the working class, consigned to the role of passive observers in 1989, has re-emerged as a serious political force again. The 99 percent, as expressed by the Occupy Wall Street, the emergence of the Syriza socialist formation in Greece, and the eruption of popular protest throughout the Arab world, indicates that working people can no longer be sidelined by the political and economic system. Across Europe, with the mass protests in Spain, Greece and other countries, the capitalist system is declining starting with its economic periphery in Eastern Europe. Make no mistake, the current economic catastrophe began in the United States and Britain, the countries where neoliberal ‘free-market’ orthodoxy was applied with the strictest attention. Warnings about the dire situation ahead are emanating not just from sources routinely dismissed by the corporate-controlled media as the ‘lunatic fringe’ Left. Heavyweight economic analysts are also weighing in, warning that 2013 will witness further storms and stresses.

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