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Monday, February 28, 2011

Wealth Being Valued Differently in American and European Society: The Case of Financial Reform

The EU and US can be seen to differ markedly in the degree to which the interests of big business are etched in the respective societies and polities.  That is to say, the difference goes beyond the question of the relative influences of the lobbyists. I contend that the relative proclivity toward business in the American states tilts the political playing field in the direction of the financial interests. This difference reflects a more basic subterranean difference on how much wealth and its manifestation as business are valued.  That is to say, it is easier for financial sector lobbyists in the United States because the societal values lean in their favor. This can be seen from the respective financial reforms in the EU and US after the financial crisis of 2008. This case bears strongly on my thesis because in both economies the financial sector was viewed as culpable. So one would expect the ensuing laws to come down on the banks rather than be conducive to their interests, unless a societal value on the profit-motive were still in force.

On March 10, 2010, the EU Parliament adopted a Resolution (536 votes in favour to 80 against) calling for the financial sector to contribute fairly towards economic recovery since the costs of the crisis are being borne by taxpayers. On 25 March, Members of Parliament’s special “Financial, Economic and Social Crisis Committee” debated the rationale behind a possible financial transaction tax. Stephan Schulmeister of the Austrian Institute for Economic Research in Vienna said short-term financial transactions can make short-term prices of currencies and other financial products such as derivatives and shares vary wildly. Schulmeister claimed that a tax on financial transactions of just 0.05% would eliminate these short-term transactions, bring greater stability and bring €300 billion of additional revenues to the EU. While the tax would undoubtedly bring in revenue, it is not clear to me that short-term transactions would be eliminated, as they can be worthwhile even with such a tax. Moreover, the financial crisis of 2008 shows us that the volitility can come from the market mechanism itself (in so far as it magnifies irrational exuberance). At any rate, even as there has been division on the matter of such a tax in the parliament, that the proposal has been made distiguishes the legislative body of the EU from the Congress in the US, where such a proposal would undoubted by blocked. Indeed, the EU Parliament has gone ever further.

On July 7, 2010, the EU Parliament approved some of the strictest rules in the world on bankers’ bonuses.  In the legislation, caps are imposed on upfront cash bonuses and at least half of any bonus will have to be paid in contingent capital and shares. MEPs also toughened rules on the capital reserves that banks must hold to guard against any risks from their trading activities and from their exposure to highly complex securities. “Two years on from the global financial crisis, these tough new rules on bonuses will transform the bonus culture and end incentives for excessive risk-taking. A high-risk and short-term bonus culture wrought havoc with the global economy and taxpayers paid the price. Since banks have failed to reform we are now doing the job for them”, said British MEP Arlene McCarthy. Upfront cash bonuses are capped at 30% of the total bonus and to 20% for particularly large bonuses.  Between 40 and 60% of any bonus must be deferred for at least three years and can be recovered if investments do not perform as expected. Moreover at least 50% of the total bonus would be paid as “contingent capital” (funds to be called upon first in case of bank difficulties) and shares. Bonuses also have to be capped as a proportion of salary. Each bank must establish limits on bonuses related to salaries, on the basis of EU wide guidelines, to help bring down the overall, disproportionate, role played by bonuses in the financial sector. Finally, bonus-like pensions are also covered. Exceptional pension payments must be held back in instruments such as contingent capital that link their final value to the overall strength of the bank. This is to avoid situations, similar to those experienced in the wake of the financial crisis of 2008 in which some bankers retired with substantial pensions unaffected by the crisis their bank was facing. The rules apply to foreign banks operating in the EU and to subsidiaries of EU banks operating abroad. The law gives state regulators in the 27 EU states binding powers to take action against banks that fail to comply with the new rules (contrast this with the US Gov’t going after Arizona for trying to enforce US immigration law).

Clearly, the US financial reform does not go this far. Notably, it does not put much of a crimp in the American bankers’ life. This is no accident. The feeling among big bankers in the US is that they dodged a bullet concerning what could have been in the bill. That is to say, there was no “too big to fail” limit put on a bank’s capital or size generally speaking, or on the bankers’ compensation. The American media and President Obama have been strangely silent on why.  Perhaps it is as in the case of the health reform, where the President removed his objection to an insurance mandate and dropped his desire for a public option after the lobbyist for the American health insurance companies told him that her support was contingent on these changes. My point is simply this: Were not American society leaning in a pro-business direction (e.g., economic liberty being salient in how liberty itself is viewed), the President might not have felt the need to be bent in the lobbyist’s direction. That is to say, the lobbyist would not have had so much leverage. Wall Street no doubt had massive influence in the crafting of the financial reform as it was making its way through Congress (even though the banks were culpable in the financial crisis—which is itself telling). I submit that the reasons go beyond the sheer power of money. Fortunately, we can look across the pond for a better look at ourselves.

Sources: http://www.europarl.europa.eu/news/public/story_page/044-71441-088-03-14-907-20100329STO71433-2010-29-03-2010/default_en.htm