Many people complain that the finance industry has barely suffered any adverse consequences from the crisis that it created, which began around 10 years ago. But a report from New Financial, a think tank, shows that is not completely true.
The additional capital that regulators demanded banks take on to their balance sheets has had an effect. Between 2006 and 2016, the return on capital of the world’s biggest banks has fallen by a third (by more in Britain and Europe). The balance of power has shifted away from the developed world and toward China, which had four of the largest five banks by assets in 2016.
The swaggering beasts of the investment-banking industry have also been tamed. The industry’s revenue has dropped by 34 percent in real terms, with profits falling by 46 percent. Return on equity has declined by two-thirds. Staff are still lavishly remunerated, but pay is down by 52 percent in real terms. The relative importance of different divisions also has shifted, with the revenue of the sales, trading and equity-raising departments shrinking more than the merger-advice or debt-raising divisions.
This last change reflects market developments. In 2016 stock markets were smaller, as a proportion of GDP, than they were in 2006, despite the record highs on Wall Street; that was because Europe and Asia have not performed as well. Both government- and corporate-bond markets were bigger than they were a decade earlier.
Meanwhile the game of “pass-the-parcel” of assets around the markets has speeded up; trading volumes in equities, foreign exchange and derivatives have increased in real terms.
Overall, the authors of the report remark that “it is perhaps surprising how little has changed.” By making the banks take on additional capital, the authorities have at least made the system less likely to suffer an exact repeat of the last crisis. But the world is still marked by a combination of high asset prices and high levels of debt. Outside the financial sector, there is even more debt than there was 10 years ago; the total of government, household and nonfinancial debt levels are 434 percent of GDP in the U.S.
In other words, the borrowing has been shifted to other parts of the economy; but that makes the finance industry no less vulnerable. A sudden fall in asset prices, or a sharp rise in interest rates, would reveal the jagged rocks beneath the surface. Central banks know this; that is why they are so cautious about unwinding monetary stimuli. At the heart of the next economic crisis will be the finance business; that has not changed in the past decade.