Who really creates wealth in our world?

One of the world's foremost economists, Mariana Mazzucato, looks at the crisis in modern capitalism and how we might reform it.

The Value of Everything

Until the 1960s, finance was not widely considered a ‘productive’ part of the economy

Financial crises, of course, are not new. Yet Blankfein’s exuberant confidence in his bank would have been less common half a century ago. Until the 1960s, finance was not widely considered a ‘productive’ part of the economy/pull quote. It was viewed as important for transferring existing wealth, not creating new wealth. Indeed, economists were so convinced about the purely facilitating role of finance that they did not even include most of the services that banks performed, such as taking in deposits and giving out loans, in their calculations of how many goods and services are produced by the economy. Finance sneaked into their measurements of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) only as an ‘intermediate input’ – a service contributing to the functioning of other industries that were the real value creators.

In around 1970, however, things started to change. The national accounts – which provide a statistical picture of the size, composition and direction of an economy – began to include the financial sector in their calculations of GDP, the total value of the goods and services produced by the economy in question. This change in accounting coincided with the deregulation of the financial sector which, among other things, relaxed controls on how much banks could lend, the interest rates they could charge and the products they could sell. Together, these changes fundamentally altered how the financial sector behaved, and increased its influence on the ‘real’ economy. No longer was finance seen as a staid career. Instead, it became a fast track for smart people to make a great deal of money. Indeed, <after the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, some of the cleverest scientists in Eastern Europe ended up going to work for Wall Street/pull quote>. The industry expanded, grew more confident. It openly lobbied to advance its interests, claiming that finance was critical for wealth creation.

Today the issue is not just the size of the financial sector, and how it has outpaced the growth of the non-financial economy (e.g. industry), but its effect on the behaviour of the rest of the economy, large parts of which have been ‘financialized’. Financial operations and the mentality they breed pervade industry, as can be seen when managers choose to spend a greater proportion of profits on share buy-backs – which in turn boost stock prices, stock options and the pay of top executives – than on investing in the long-term future of the business.

They call it value creation but, as in the financial sector itself, the reality is often the opposite: value extraction.

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