Fear of Finance

Fear of finance is on the march. Distrust of highly paid people who work behind computer screens doing something that doesn’t look like productive work is everywhere. Paper shufflers are doing better than producers; speculators are doing better than managers; traders are doing better than entrepreneurs; arbitrageurs are doing better than accumulators; the clever are doing better than the solid; and behind all of it, the financial market is more powerful than the state.

Common opinion suggests that this state of affairs is unjust. As Franklin D. Roosevelt put it, we must cast down the “money changers” from their “high seats in the temple of our civilization.” We must “restore the ancient truths” that growing, making, managing, and inventing things should have higher status, more honor, and greater rewards than whatever it is that financiers do.

Of course, there is a lot to fear in modern global finance. Its scale is staggering: more than $4 trillion of mergers and acquisitions this year, with tradable and (theoretically) liquid financial assets reaching perhaps $160 trillion by the end of this year, all in a world where annual global GDP is perhaps $50 trillion.

The McKinsey Global Institute recently estimated that world financial assets today are more than three times world GDP – triple the ratio in 1980 (and up from only two-thirds of world GDP after World War II). And then there are the numbers that sound very large and are hard to interpret: $300 trillion in “derivative” securities; $3 trillion managed by 12,000 global “hedge funds”; $1.2 trillion a year in “private equity.”