Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Wen and Obama: Breaking Up the Banks

Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao told a radio audience on April 3, 2012 “that China’s state-controlled banks are a ‘monopoly’ that must be broken up.” He also urged other businesses to get into the financial sector. “Let me be frank,” he said. “Our banks earn profit too easily. Why? Because a small number of large banks have a monopoly. To break the monopoly, we must allow private capital to flow into the financial sector.” This included raising the total amount foreigners can bring into China under the Qualified Foreign Institutional Investor program to $80 billion.

Besides combined earnings of a bit over 632 billion yuan ($99 billion) in a slowing economy, the largest banks—Industrial & Commercial Bank of China, Bank of China, Agricultural Bank of China, and China Construction Bank—were able to raise fees indiscriminately, sparking the popular resentment that Wen was able to tap on the radio. Beyond the unfairness of the windfall profits, the artificially low cost to the banks in borrowing from domestic savings accounts meant that investment has proceeded at the expense of consumption. Given that the current account surplus stood at just 2.7% of GDP in 2011 due to slackening demand in Europe and North America, the imbalance regarding consumption could already be seen as a potential constraint to economic growth.

Therefore, Wen’s strategy in going after the unpopular banking oligopoly was wise both politically and economically. The question at the time was whether anything would come of his remarks. According to The Wall Street Journal, the “major question is whether increasing rhetoric and new initiatives toward economic revisions will lead to broader reform. Prior efforts have faltered amid Beijing’s drive to keep a tight rein on the economy and opposition from interest groups.” That Wen made his remarks as he was preparing to leave office may mean that they should be regarded as akin to President Eisenhower’s “Beware the military-industrial complex” farewell speech. A swan song is not apt to be followed by still another act.

In terms of lessons from a comparative approach, it would be ironic, to say the least, were the Chinese government willing and able to break up the four largest banks while the Dodd Frank Act of 2010 in the U.S. let the banks too big to fail remain intact in spite of the plights of Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers in 2008. That is to say, if the Chinese government could have taken on its powerful banks, the U.S. government would have looked comparatively weak as against the American banking sector.

Lest it not be forgotten, however, President Andrew Jackson’s defunding of the Second Bank of the United States at around 1830 was daring even bank then when the financial sector was smaller relative to the U.S. economy as a whole. Five or six years later, Congress finally got around to ending the bank’s charter altogether. Jackson’s argument was that having a bank would make Congress, and thus the U.S. Government, too powerful in the American federal system. The dangers to the American republics in having a powerful moneyed interest were also not lost on the nineteenth-century president.

Therefore, we can view the Dodd Frank Financial Reform Act of 2010 through the lenses both of China, assuming something comes of Wen’s remarks, and of American history. President Obama barely broached the subject of breaking up Wall Street banks even though they had been culpable in the derivative mess. Congress would hear nothing of it.  The Chinese government may not be so constrained by the self-serving interests of its banking oligarchy.

Similarly, claims that President Obama’s reliance on private health-insurance companies rather than a state-owned entity in his Affordable Healthcare Act of 2010 was somehow socialism (i.e., ownership by the state of means of production) can also be viewed relative to a Wen’s criticism of the state-owned banks (which favor state-owned enterprises in terms of lending). Obama caved to the private health-insurance company lobby on even a public option, whereas Wen suggests that the Chinese government might break up the four biggest banks. Is the Chinese state stronger than the U.S. Government relative to the interests of private capital?

Relative to the “socialist” leader’s distancing himself from a bias toward state-owned banks (and enterprises in general) in China, President Obama’s support of both the Dodd-Frank and Health-care Affordability laws can be seen in retrospect as anything but advocating U.S. Government ownership of means of production/services. Wen’s remarks show a movement away from socialism, toward Obama’s stance, though perhaps with government rather than banks in the driver’s seat.

Dinny McMahon, Lingling Wei, and Andrew Galbraith, “Chinese Premier Blasts Banks,” The Wall Street Journal, April 4, 2012.