1. Introduction: The many dimensions of financialisation
The storm that has gradually engulfed the US economy since August 2007 is a fully-fledged crisis of financialised capitalism. It is also the latest in a succession of financial crises during the last three decades: from Mexico in 1982, to Japan in 1990, to East Asia in 1997, the list is long. Bubbles and crises are a regular feature of financialised capitalism.
The US crisis has not sprung out of a malaise of production, though it could
well lead to disruption of accumulation. Rather, it has resulted from the
financialisation of personal income during the last two decades, that is, from the
increasing penetration of formal finance into the transactions of ordinary life: housing, pensions, insurance, consumption, and so on. By the same token the crisis has revealed the extent to which contemporary finance relies on drawing profits directly from the personal income of working people and others across society. This is direct exploitation, a characteristic feature of financialised capitalism.
Banking and finance have been transformed during the last three decades.
Banks have turned their attention to individuals while becoming more distant from industrial and commercial capital. Meanwhile, open financial markets have expanded, with the participation of vast non-bank financial intermediaries: pension funds, money funds, hedge funds, equity funds, and so on. For banks this has meant opportunities for financial market mediation, that is, for facilitating transactions and drawing fees. This too is a characteristic feature of financialisation, and related to direct exploitation.
The crisis and the preceding bubble have also cast a cold light on the social
transformation wrought by financialisation. During the bubble, extravagant sums of money were paid to managers and other functionaries of finance, such as lawyers, accountants, technical analysts, and so on. The managers and shareholders of large corporations also benefited handsomely through dividends and capital gains.
Financialisation appears to have brought back the rentier. But this is not the idle money owner of the past, drawing rents by clipping coupons. Instead, rents accrue mostly due to the position of rentiers relative to the financial system, and take the form of salaries, bonuses, and stock options. The modern rentier is the product of the structural changes wrought by financialisation, rather than the driving force of financialisation.