Market economies, regulation and crony capitalism

Dog straining at a leash
This is what many politicians and intellectuals would like to do to markets (source: dpa)

It has been the intellectual fashion among commentators, politicians and some economists to claim that the financial crisis of 2008 and the ensuing economic downturn were caused by excessively free markets, or “turbo-capitalism.”

From this they deduce that free markets foster inequality, and that inequality is the main source of today’s social and economic problems.

The result is a cry for more regulation and government intervention whose aim, in the words of one German finance minister, is to put the markets on a leash.

We certainly need sensible regulations. But in this context, we should not forget the best and most efficient regulator. That would be competition, which keeps markets clean, honest and working for the best interests of all stakeholders and society in general.

It must also be admitted that the biggest problems arose in the most highly regulated sector: the global financial industry. The tangled thicket of regulations favored large players (“too big to fail”) and led to concentration. This encouraged cartels and unethical price-fixing, as shown in the Libor scandal. Such malpractice by a handful of big players appears to have been silently tolerated by the regulatory authorities.

Market distortions

Meanwhile, irresponsible and populist overspending by governments over the past 30 years led to large budget deficits and sovereign debt. One of the main reasons why central banks adopted a policy of easy money was to alleviate this fiscal burden. Money is the raw material of the financial system. As in any industry, government intervention to keep raw materials cheap will distort markets, exaggerate profits and encourage waste and abuses.

To camouflage the crony system between governments and big banks, the term “turbo-capitalism” was coined

The problems in the financial sector were created by a regulatory concentration of the industry combined with cheap money. Capitalism, based on competition and free markets, was replaced by regulations and government intervention. In order to camouflage the crony system between governments and big banks, the term “turbo-capitalism” was coined. True markets and capitalism took the blame.

It did not stop there, however. Capitalism and free markets were also blamed for inequality, which was identified as the fundamental problem.

This diagnosis is totally false.

It is true that inequality is rising. But one has to analyze the reasons carefully before jumping to populist, ideological conclusions.

Liberalization of markets for labor, goods and services has helped approximately 1 billion people escape from poverty over the past 25 years. In both magnitude and speed, this is an unprecedented step.

But an era of cheap money has brought huge problems. Zero to negative interest rates have destroyed the personal savings of vast numbers of people, encouraged a culture of debt and threaten to wipe out pension savings. Poverty may again become the norm among elderly people in the developed world.

The real reason for today’s economic malaise and rising inequality is overregulation

A side effect of cheap money is asset bubbles, which drastically increase inequality on paper even if they fail to make the rich richer on a lasting basis (because bubbles burst). With so much money sloshing around, the equity and real estate markets are too expensive, reducing investment in the economy and hindering growth.

The real reason for today’s economic malaise and rising inequality is overregulation. This creates inefficiencies and encourages politicians to intervene in the economy for short-term, populist aims. Unfortunately, they will find cronies in the private sector, because market inefficiencies can be very profitable to a privileged few – to the detriment of business and the broader public.

Politicians and regulators should not be putting markets on a leash. They should be devising lean and efficient rules to allow free markets to do their work. Competition and innovation lead to prosperity, from which everyone benefits.

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