Correspondent Brenton Smith (no relation) recently identified a key driver of the next financial crisis: Economic Darwinism. Just as natural selection selects for traits that improve the odds of success/survival in the natural world, Economic Darwinism advances people and policies that boost profits and power within the dominant environment.
As Brenton explains in his essay The One Phrase That Explains the Great Recession, “The Federal Reserve’s 20-year policy of easy money created an environment virtually assured to select bankers, bureaucrats, educators, and elected officials who least understood the consequences of a credit crisis.”
In other words, a hyper-financialized environment of near-zero interest and abundant credit rewarded those people and policies that succeed in that environment. Once the environment changes from “risk-on” to “risk-off,” the people and policies in charge are the worst possible choices for leadership, as the traits that enable successful management of credit crises have been selected out of the leadership pool.
This has political as well as financial consequences. As Brenton noted in an email exchange, Economic Darwinism creates an “incestuous relationship between Wall Street and Washington D.C., where success on Wall Street leads to a career in D.C.” This is a self-reinforcing process, as all those who are unwilling to keep dancing during the risk-on speculative orgy are weeded out of both the financial and political sectors, while those who dance the hardest gain political power, which they use to keep the music playing regardless of the increasing risks or consequences to the nation.
Here is an excerpt of Brenton’s insightful essay:
Have we seriously forgotten 2008?Today the Federal Reserve has an economic policy that not only fosters crisis, but introduces a Darwinian process that selects leaders who are uniquely unfit to deal with it.
Let’s step back to 2008, when the investment bank Bear Stearns failed with leverage of 35 to 1, the danger of which should be obvious to anyone who’s taken fifth-grade math. Wall Street embraced these dangers to the point where it nearly went extinct. Not only did our government miss the risk, but the head of the Federal Reserve described derivatives, the centerpiece of the crisis, as “a useful risk management tool” held in the hands of the well-capitalized hands of sophisticated investors. Six months later, virtually every government employee would describe the financial crisis as a fast-moving event.
How does this happen? Economic Darwinism. (Emphasis added: CHS) Whether it is getting elected or getting promoted, Economic Darwinism selects people by success. The Federal Reserve’s 20-year policy of easy money created an environment virtually assured to select bankers, bureaucrats, educators, and elected officials who least understood the consequences of a credit crisis.
When the Federal Reserve forced interest rates lower, it altered the balance and outcome of risk in favor of risk-takers. That step led to greater earnings streams, or sales, or some measure of profitability. Stupid transactions seemed wise, and foolish risks were rewarded.
The most important thing to understand about booms and Economic Darwinism is that when it happens, the statistical likelihood of any system promoting someone with a sensible risk perspective becomes lower and lower.Capitalism acts as a steroid, drawing cash into successful companies. This process encourages other companies to emulate the practices that made certain companies successful.
By 2008, Darwinism had selected bankers and regulators who never considered that a credit crunch was even possible. Decision makers were oblivious to the cost of capital. The head of Bear Stearns appeared on CNBC to assure his investors days before the company was to be forced into bankruptcy. Lehman Brothers had a secondary offering to raise money only months before its bankruptcy, yet it sold only $3 billion in preferred stock. The survivors of 20 years of success were simply unable to grasp the idea that they could finally start to lose their bets.
The boom times enabled animals called bankers grow to massive size. Nature selected those who were the fittest for that environment. When the environment changed, these animals were like dinosaurs staring at the glaciers. The interest rate policy of the Federal Reserve today is designed to keep those dinosaurs warm and well fed.
The people who run our country were largely selected by Economic Darwinism from a pool of people who owe their success to cheap interest. It is no surprise that these people see cheap interest as the only solution to our economic woes. This policy is about rebuilding their past rather than improving your future.
Thank you, Brenton, for your incisive and prescient analysis. Economic Darwinism doesn’t just select people; it also selects policies, mindsets and institutions that are incapable of succeeding when the current serial speculative-bubble blowing policies implode.
New Podcast: Marty Nemko of KALW-FM and CHS on the future of work: scroll down the list of KALW programs to Work with Marty Nemko and click Use iTunes. Then select the August 25 show to download.