[Marxism] A crash course in capitalism

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Mon Dec 8 12:01:52 MST 2008

A crash course in capitalism
Claudio Katz

The seism on Wall Street has surprised the world Establishment. At the 
summits of power, panic and alarmist declarations dominate. Everyone is 
absorbing an event which could be the beginning of a change of epoch. 
The comparison with the fall of the Berlin Wall gives some indication of 
this historical dimension.

The present crisis started to incubate in June 2007, with the collapse 
of the insurance funds managed by Bear Stearns, and demonstrated its 
force with the nationalization of the British bank Northern Rock. From 
this gestation we moved on to events the profundity of which is obvious 
to everyone.
Dimension and costs

The rapid conversion of problems of liquidity into insolvent deficits 
illustrated from the beginning the enormous dimension of a crisis which 
could not be contained by partial patching up. The reduction of interest 
rates proved to be useless, just like the attempt to form rescue funds 
managed by the banks. Nor was making large sums of money available or 
the assistance of the external sovereign funds sufficient.

The government of the United States undertook several contradictory 
initiatives to attenuate the explosion. By allowing Lehman Brothers to 
go bankrupt it opened up the possibility of a brutal cleansing of the 
banks which were failing and tried to place certain limits on rescue 
operations. It thus granted the Federal Reserve full powers to judge who 
should be saved and who could drown. But since that sowed terror among 
financiers, it quickly backtracked.

The opposite alternative, aiming at nationalizing all the losses, was 
consolidated by the nationalization of AIG. The official support granted 
to the largest world insurer (and to its gigantic portfolio of pension 
funds) thus supplemented the previous rescue of Fannie Mae and Freddie 
Mac, which finance half of housing in the United States. The fact that 
these semi-public institutions were contaminated indicates to what point 
the initial problems of bad quality debts (subprimes) had already been 

The new series of nationalisations came to the aid of the latest victims 
of the hurricane: hedge funds, venture capital funds(which operate with 
highly speculative financial products) and money market funds (which 
accumulate investments that are less audacious and not without 
government guarantee). But in fact the it was the commercial banks that 
constituted the critical point.

The bankruptcy of Washington Mutual inaugurated the collapse which 
threatens to extend to 117 minor entities surveyed by the FDIC (the 
official guaranteeing body). Certain estimates forecast that the last 
rites will be said over half of the 8,500 US banks. In any case, the 
crisis has already reached the investment banks (which raise money 
directly in the financial circuits) and is affecting the entire system, 
with interbank operations becoming paralysed and insinuations of 
deposits being in danger.

We are also seeing a vertiginous wave of acquisitions within this 
framework. Merrill Lynch was captured by Bank of America, Bear Stearns 
was taken over by Morgan Stanley, Wachovia passed into the hands of 
Citigroup (or Wells Fargo) and Goldman Sachs put its package of shares 
up for sale. This virulent change of owners extended on an international 
scale, with the acquisition of Britain’s HBOS by Lloyds and the 
absorption of subsidiaries of Bradford and Bingley by the Spanish bank 

Some buyers (Barclays) are pocketing the small change of their old 
competitors (Lehman) or foraging among their leftovers. The result of 
all that will be a new level of banking concentration. Those who will 
survive their gambles (possibly the trio JP Morgan Chase, Bank of 
America and Citigroup) will take the leadership of the whole of the 
American financial system. This centralization is being preceded by a 
furious devaluation of the capital concerned, handled up until now in 
the financial sphere.

Another option underway is that of the nationalization of toxic 
mortgages, an option that Congress is examining in a climate of 
blackmail by the Stock Exchange. The financiers (presented as “the 
market”) demanded government aid to stop the economy going under 
(“restoring confidence”). They asked the government to purchase the 
depreciated securities in order to revalorize them before reselling them.

This rescue resembles that obtained by Mexican financiers in 1995. There 
too the state bought the devalued securities, thus cleansing companies’ 
balance sheets, and marketed bonds at a pure loss for the state budget. 
The speculators had created a climate of panic so that this new swindle 
would come as a blessed relief.

But this time the shameless aid brought by the state to those 
responsible for the collapse produced an indignation against the bankers 
which called into question their sacrosanct rules of the free market. 
This rejection of Wall Street - which had not been seen since 
Roosevelt’s time - obliged the legislators to incorporate some 
restrictions on the blank cheque initially asked for by the Federal 
Reserve. The amendments thus include tax reductions of various kinds, to 
create the illusion of a more equitable distribution of the load.

The widespread malaise expresses, moreover, a massive intuition that 
there has been a useless waste of resources. If the future confirms that 
two thirds of mortgage credits are completely irrecoverable, a mountain 
of money will have been frittered away. It is obvious that no financial 
engineering can resist the continuing collapse of property prices, nor 
the unending deterioration of the income of house-buyers.

For this reason Congress is also sponsoring a certain form of 
renegotiation of mortgages between those in debt and the banks, with the 
mediation of the state. But only a context of economic recovery - which 
appears distant - could provide support for such an initiative.

For the moment, what predominates is a crisis without an foreseeable 
solution, which has put into question all the neo-liberal principles. In 
a climate of state intervention and subsidies, the regulator is welcome 
and the market is challenged. But as the rescue is not free, it will be 
necessary to resort to an operation whose cost is unknown. The emission 
of securities on securities was so sophisticated that nobody is in a 
position to calculate the amount concerned. In July 2007 the Federal 
Reserve estimated the losses at around 50 billion dollars. At the 
beginning of the year 2008 the figure leapt to 512 billion dollars and 
current evaluations turn around 1,000 to 2,000 billion dollars. How will 
such a bill be paid?

The great banking crises of recent decades had colossal costs for the 
underdeveloped countries. They represented 55.1 per cent of the Gross 
Domestic Product (GDP) of Argentina (1980-1987), 55 per cent of that of 
Indonesia (1997-2004) and 34 per cent of that of Thailand (1997-2004). 
But this percentage hardly reached 3.2 per cent of GDP at the time of 
the last great financial rescue operation in the United States 
(1981-1991). This is the first time in decade that the leading world 
power will have to face a full-scale financial loss.

full: http://www.internationalviewpoint.org/spip.php?article1562

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