What Good Is Wall Street?

John Cassidy in The New Yorker:

101129_r20264_p233 Since the promulgation of Hammurabi’s Code, in ancient Babylon, no advanced society has survived without banks and bankers. Banks enable people to borrow money, and, today, by operating electronic-transfer systems, they allow commerce to take place without notes and coins changing hands. They also play a critical role in channelling savings into productive investments. When a depositor places money in a savings account or a C.D., the bank lends it out to corporations, small businesses, and families. These days, Bank of America, Citi, JPMorgan Chase, and others also help corporations and municipalities raise money by issuing stocks, bonds, and other securities on their behalf. The business of issuing securities used to be the exclusive preserve of Wall Street firms, such as Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs, but during the past twenty years many of the dividing lines between ordinary banks and investment banks have vanished.

When the banking system behaves the way it is supposed to—as Pandit says Citi is now behaving—it is akin to a power utility, distributing money (power) to where it is needed and keeping an account of how it is used. Just like power utilities, the big banks have a commanding position in the market, which they can use for the benefit of their customers and the economy at large. But when banks seek to exploit their position and make a quick killing, they can cause enormous damage. It’s not clear now whether the bankers have really given up their reckless practices, as Pandit claims they have, or whether they are merely lying low. In the past few years, all the surviving big banks have raised more capital and become profitable again. However, the U.S. government was indirectly responsible for much of this turnaround. And in the country at large, where many businesses rely on the banks to fund their day-to-day operations, the power still isn’t flowing properly. Over-all bank lending to firms and households remains below the level it reached in 2008.

More here.