Saturday, January 30, 2010

The ravages of financial capitalism

Consumption, technology and finance are intimately related; exceeded by the abuses that I witness daily in the world of finance, I begin today a series of columns on the ravages of financial capitalism.

Technological development, the driving force of consumption, is linked to available funding, especially since the 19th century’s industrial revolution; however, it was not always so. In «Consommation et nouvelles technologies — Au monde de l’hyper», a book I published in November 2009, I write: «Capitalism and technological development can exist without the other: "Capitalism has existed in other civilizations whose technical development was relatively low. Technique made steady progress from the tenth to the fifteenth century without needing the nudge of capitalism (Mumford, 1950)." But the nature of current technological development and the speed with which it takes place requires a concentration of capital available only to States and large investors (Ellul, 1990). » A source of funding is needed for technological progress; it can be public or private.

This said, State communism has shown its limits; capitalism has thus proved to be the least evil form of economic organization, despite the fact that it gave birth to the consumer society, then to hyperconsumption, and is undermined by speculation. This is why Robert Rochefort said: «The consumer society is the least evil form of society tested so far (Rochefort, 1995). »

Consequently, as I wrote in «Consommation et luxe – La voie de l’excès et de l’illusion» in 2007: «It is not my intention to criticize capitalism or the stock market as a whole. This mode of financing is necessary for the operation and growth of businesses. » I was then content to denounce the greed of a few large investors that feeds a speculation phenomenon. Two years have passed, and, if I still strongly believe in the merits of one form of capitalism, responsible, my opinion of the stock market has further deteriorated since then, because, more than ever, speculation is raging on Wall Street, Bay Street and all stock exchanges.

Speculation is a phenomenon which is inherent to stock market trading, because it is rooted in human desires for power, money being a form of power. Extremely harmful to our societies, it is responsible for the subprime mortgages crisis, which arose in summer 2007, then degenerated into an economic and financial crisis a year later; speculation is also responsible for most preceding crisis and for the bad reputation that many have made to capitalism: «Later, and more destructive to the reputation of capitalism in the United States, was the visibly insane Florida real estate speculation, the rising corporate and industrial voice and, most important, the stock market explosion of the late 1920s. Then came the world resonating crash of 1929 and, for ten long years, The Great Depression. (Galbraith, 2004). »

Closer to us, take for example high-frequency trading, a practice that is now spreading on Wall Street: « Powerful computers, some housed right next to the machines that drive marketplaces like the New York Stock Exchange, enable high-frequency traders to transmit millions of orders at lightning speed and, their detractors contend, reap billions at everyone else’s expense. These systems are so fast they can outsmart or outrun other investors, humans and computers alike. And after growing in the shadows for years, they are generating lots of talk. Nearly everyone on Wall Street is wondering how hedge funds and large banks like Goldman Sachs are making so much money so soon after the financial system nearly collapsed. High-frequency trading is one answer (Stock Traders Find Speed Pays, in Milliseconds). »

Thus, it is likely that much of the gains on the stock market in 2009 may be attributed to speculation and market manipulation. Such practices create no tangible value, only a hypothetical value based on an imaginary future, hence the creation of speculative bubbles, technological, real estate or other; those inevitably burst sooner or later, causing the usual parade of economic and social problems. Said practices will ultimately destroy our economies and our societies if we do not put an end to them.

Speculation and market manipulation, which have flared up after the stock market crisis of fall 2008, will inevitably lead to an even worse crisis, from which Western economies may not recover, if States do not exercise tighter control over these practices.

In my next column, I’ll talk about the birth and evolution of capitalism and oft he stock market, and compare two forms of investment in a high tech company.

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