The financialisation of everyday life must be confronted

Unless we can reverse this financialisation and create a healthier basis for growth, the prospects for working people look grim.

The debate about growth and economic restructuring in Britain ought to depart from the fundamental transformation of UK capitalism during the last four decades. Britain’s economy is now beholden to big finance. Or to put it more accurately, the UK has become financialised, as has the USA but also Japan and Germany. Financialisation is a deep underlying change, and no set of radical or socialist economic policies would make sense unless that was recognised.

The previous decade has cast light on the transformation:

Finance grew extraordinarily in terms of prices, profits, and volume of transactions, but also in terms of influence and arrogance. By the middle of the decade a vast bubble had been inflated in the USA and the UK, the bursting of which was likely to be devastating.

The expansion of finance represented much more than financial excess. Finance had become pivotal to economic activity and to determining economic policy, but also to organising everyday life. Mature capitalism had become financialised. 

In August 2007 the US money market had a heart attack, and in August-September 2008 the global financial system had a near-death experience. Deep recession followed across the world, and then in 2009-2012 the crisis took a further nasty turn. States had become perilously exposed to debt because recession had reduced tax revenues, while rescuing finance had imposed fresh costs on the exchequer. Austerity followed, causing loss of income for working people, unemployment and destruction of welfare. Things became bad enough in the UK, but the impact of austerity in the Eurozone has been catastrophic.

As I argue in my book, Profiting without Producing, published by Verso this November, the crisis has revealed three fundamental trends of financialisation:

First, industrial and commercial enterprises have become increasingly involved in financial operations, often undertaking financial transactions to earn profits. Big business, in particular, relies less on banks, while changing its organisation and investment practices. The ideology of ‘shareholder value’ has become prevalent among large enterprises.

Second, banks have turned toward open financial markets to make profits through financial trading rather than through outright borrowing and lending. They have further turned toward households as a source of profit, often combining trading in open markets with lending to households, or collecting household savings.

Third, households increasingly rely on the private financial system to facilitate access to vital goods and services, including housing, education and health, as well as to hold savings. Everyday life has become financialised.

Financialised capitalism is an economic system of weak and precarious growth, low wages, profound inequality, and deep instability. The ascendancy of finance has resulted in regular financial bubbles, which cause devastation when they burst. Finance first earns enormous profits, and then calls upon society to carry the costs of crisis. Events since 2008, including the imposition of austerity, reflect the enormous influence of financial interests over policy-making, and indicate that financialisation will persist.

On Saturday 2 November I will be speaking at the first conference for the Centre for Labour and Social Studies, where I will be discussing ways working people could oppose and reverse financialisation. This is a vital process but it is far from easy. For one thing, it would be necessary to introduce regulation that could prevent financial institutions from engaging in speculative activities. Such regulation must include direct controls on interest rates and on the lending practices of financial institutions, if it is to have an impact. Time is short as yet another bubble is gradually developing, not least in the UK.

But regulation alone would never be enough. Public property over financial institutions must also be introduced as private banks have failed repeatedly, thus causing enormous pain. The UK needs public banks with a fresh spirit of public service that would support investment as well as meeting the financial needs of working people.

More broadly, financialisation of everyday life must also be confronted by reversing the involvement of private financial institutions in housing, education, health and elsewhere. Imaginative, flexible and creative public provision across a range of goods and services would be vital to reversing financialisation.

If financialisation began to be reversed, a healthier basis could be created for pro-growth macroeconomic policies but also for required restructuring of the UK economy to provide secure income and employment. Otherwise, the prospects for working people look far from optimistic. 

Class Conference 2013 will take place on Saturday 2 November at TUC Congress House. Tickets can be purchased here

Britain’s economy is now beholden to big finance. Photo: Getty
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I was wrong about Help to Buy - but I'm still glad it's gone

As a mortgage journalist in 2013, I was deeply sceptical of the guarantee scheme. 

If you just read the headlines about Help to Buy, you could be under the impression that Theresa May has just axed an important scheme for first-time buyers. If you're on the left, you might conclude that she is on a mission to make life worse for ordinary working people. If you just enjoy blue-on-blue action, it's a swipe at the Chancellor she sacked, George Osborne.

Except it's none of those things. Help to Buy mortgage guarantee scheme is a policy that actually worked pretty well - despite the concerns of financial journalists including me - and has served its purpose.

When Osborne first announced Help to Buy in 2013, it was controversial. Mortgage journalists, such as I was at the time, were still mopping up news from the financial crisis. We were still writing up reports about the toxic loan books that had brought the banks crashing down. The idea of the Government promising to bail out mortgage borrowers seemed the height of recklessness.

But the Government always intended Help to Buy mortgage guarantee to act as a stimulus, not a long-term solution. From the beginning, it had an end date - 31 December 2016. The idea was to encourage big banks to start lending again.

So far, the record of Help to Buy has been pretty good. A first-time buyer in 2013 with a 5 per cent deposit had 56 mortgage products to choose from - not much when you consider some of those products would have been ridiculously expensive or would come with many strings attached. By 2016, according to Moneyfacts, first-time buyers had 271 products to choose from, nearly a five-fold increase

Over the same period, financial regulators have introduced much tougher mortgage affordability rules. First-time buyers can be expected to be interrogated about their income, their little luxuries and how they would cope if interest rates rose (contrary to our expectations in 2013, the Bank of England base rate has actually fallen). 

A criticism that still rings true, however, is that the mortgage guarantee scheme only helps boost demand for properties, while doing nothing about the lack of housing supply. Unlike its sister scheme, the Help to Buy equity loan scheme, there is no incentive for property companies to build more homes. According to FullFact, there were just 112,000 homes being built in England and Wales in 2010. By 2015, that had increased, but only to a mere 149,000.

This lack of supply helps to prop up house prices - one of the factors making it so difficult to get on the housing ladder in the first place. In July, the average house price in England was £233,000. This means a first-time buyer with a 5 per cent deposit of £11,650 would still need to be earning nearly £50,000 to meet most mortgage affordability criteria. In other words, the Help to Buy mortgage guarantee is targeted squarely at the middle class.

The Government plans to maintain the Help to Buy equity loan scheme, which is restricted to new builds, and the Help to Buy ISA, which rewards savers at a time of low interest rates. As for Help to Buy mortgage guarantee, the scheme may be dead, but so long as high street banks are offering 95 per cent mortgages, its effects are still with us.