A group of Italian economists led by Franco Debenedetti of the famous financier clan and the banker Paolo Savona, obviously fearful that the Berlusconi-Tremonti government of Italy will join last Tuesday’s successful German ban on the type of toxic derivative known as the naked credit default swap, have sent an alarmed warning to the Corriere della Sera of Milan1. Debenedetti has contributed an article expressing similar sentiments to the Italian business newspaper Il Sole 24 Ore in which he rails at the “Mrs. Merkel market” now in force in Germany2. These economists, obviously inspired by the doctrines of Friedrich von Hayek and the Austrian school, want Italy to remain faithful no matter what to the widely discredited ideas of laissez-faire economics, even as those doctrines are everywhere under attack for having caused the current world economic depression. For these neoliberal and monetarist thinkers, any attempt to ban derivatives or tax speculation must be condemned as “economic populism,” which for these writers is a term of opprobrium.
These anti-populist economists need to be reminded of some basic facts about derivatives. The collapse of the Central European banking system in the summer of 1931 was decisively enabled by derivatives – specifically by speculation in wool futures by a north German textile company which brought down the Danat Bank, leading to panic runs on all German banks. Thanks to the American New Deal of Franklin D. Roosevelt, most over-the-counter and exchange-traded derivatives were illegal from 1936 to 1982 under the Commodities Exchange Act, which was repealed by the free-market enthusiast Ronald Reagan. During those years, US rates of economic growth and real wages were far superior to what they have been any time since, and financial panics were much more limited than they had been before or have become since. Presumably, FDR would be dismissed as a mere populist.
In today’s crisis, we are confronted at every turn with the fatal combination of deregulated hedge funds plus these now-rehabilitated derivatives, which in the meantime amount to a world speculative bubble of some $1.5 quadrillion of notional value. Lehman Brothers, Citibank, and Merrill Lynch were destroyed by derivatives in the form of a combination of their issuance of synthetic collateralized debt obligations based on mortgages and consumer debt, together with the credit default swaps used by hedge funds to attack these banks. The insurance company AIG had a hedge fund in London which issued $3 trillion worth of derivatives (more than the GDP of France), featuring a very toxic portfolio of credit default swaps. The failure of AIG caused by these toxic bets has now cost the US taxpayer $180 billion and counting. The attack on Greece, as these economists seem to recognize, was organized during a dinner party in Manhattan on February 8, 2010, leader reported in the headline story of the Wall Street Journal on February 26, 20103. European taxpayers are now on the hook for almost $1 trillion in bailouts as a result of this speculation. That Manhattan hedge fund dinner seems to fulfill the prima facie specifications of an illegal conspiracy in restraint of trade under the terms of the US Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890, a law proposed all those years ago by a very Republican senator and signed by Benjamin Harrison, a very Republican president. Were they populists too?