James Surowiecki: How banks got big





... The desire to bring back the boring, small banking industry of the nineteen-fifties is understandable. Unfortunately, the only way to do that would be to bring back the economy of the fifties, too. Banking was boring then because the economy was boring. The financial sector’s most important job is channelling money from investors to businesses that need capital for worthwhile investment. But in the postwar era there wasn’t much need for this. The economy, while remarkably strong, was dominated by huge companies that faced little competition, and could finance investments out of their profits. And entrepreneurship was restrained: there were many fewer start-ups then than in the period after 1980. So the financial sector didn’t have much to do.

Two things changed this. First, in the seventies those huge companies started tottering, while the U.S. economy fell apart. Second, the corporate world was transformed by revolutionary developments in information technology and by the emergence of new industries like cable television, wireless, and biotechnology. This meant that the economy became, and has remained, far more competitive, while corporate performance became far more volatile. In the nineteen-eighties, companies moved in and out of the Fortune 500 twice as fast as they had in the fifties and sixties. Suddenly, there were lots of new companies with big appetites for outside capital, which they needed in order to keep growing. And it was Wall Street that helped them get it. Companies like Turner Broadcasting, M.C.I., and McCaw Cellular used junk bonds to turn themselves into major businesses. Venture-capital investing took off, and so did the I.P.O. market; there were twice as many I.P.O.s between 1980 and 1999 as there were between 1960 and 1979. To be sure, deregulation was also a factor, but Thomas Philippon, an economist at N.Y.U., has shown that most of the increase in the size of the financial sector in this period can be accounted for by companies’ need for new capital.

This wasn’t the first time that something like this had happened. There have been three big banking booms in modern U.S. history. The first began in the late nineteenth century, during the Second Industrial Revolution, when bankers like J. P. Morgan funded the creation of industrial giants like U.S. Steel and International Harvester. The second wave came in the twenties, as electrification transformed manufacturing, and the modern consumer economy took hold. The third wave accompanied the information-technology revolution. Each wave, Philippon shows, was propelled by the need to fund new businesses, and each left finance significantly bigger than before. In all these cases, it wasn’t so much that the bankers had changed; the world had....


comments powered by Disqus
History News Network