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It is difficult to find an account of the ‘neo-liberal’ decades since 1980 that does not reserve a special place for unshackled financial markets. This is true not only for the United States but also for the European economies that are the focus of this volume and chapter. Critics commonly portray globalized and deregulated finance as the lynchpin of the neo-liberal economic order. International capital mobility has shifted the balance of power in favour of capital at the expense of labour, so the argument goes. Furthermore, credit institutions let loose have eased the pain of growing income inequality by showering unsustainable credit on households across the OECD world. These policies have been inspired or, at least, justified by neo-liberal ideas about financial markets and their regulation: that markets can ensure an efficient distribution of capital and financial services and that governments should either promote such efficiency through market-enhancing regulation and the enforcement of competition or take a hands-off approach altogether.
In the panoply of ideas about state–market relations, ideas about finance occupy a special place. Textbooks in the field emphasize individual rationality and efficiency and portray wholesale finance as quintessential markets: liquidity is high, information asymmetries and transaction costs are low, and equal assets have equal prices around the world. Because of their virtual character, contemporary financial markets have lent themselves to the practical application of abstract economic ideas more than other societal domains. That makes neo-liberal ideas powerful in contemporary finance but also vulnerable: in the event of a crisis, we can expect these ideas to attract much of the blame rather than exogenous material factors, such as adverse weather conditions in case of a famine or demographic change causing strains in pension systems.
The bitter winds of financial crisis have once again swept global markets, this time beginning at the core of the system, Wall Street. Whether blame be assigned to private greed, public policy lapses, or both, vast sums of public money and shareholder capital have been wiped out in the otherwise noble cause of preventing systemic breakdown. Vulnerable citizens once more count the costs to the real economy. As massive liquidity has been made available to private financial institutions on exceptionally permissive terms, it has been difficult not to notice the striking contrast with the management of earlier crises based in the emerging markets. When they were in the dock, the emphasis was on the conditionality of the terms of rescue; with Wall Street and the City in trouble, the terms of rescue have been much more open-ended.
As growing uncertainty combined with these apparent double standards, the crisis has reopened debate on the global financial architecture, public policy and regulation. Global financial integration and the governance of the global monetary and financial system stand at a crossroads after over thirty years of market-oriented cross-border integration and development preceded and indeed exacerbated a financial crisis on a scale not seen since the 1930s. This ongoing process of integration, regularly punctuated by crises and instability, raises analytical, normative and policy dilemmas which challenge our current understanding of financial and monetary governance.
Producing a volume on financial governance just at the outbreak of the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression proved to be both a daunting and exciting task. While the onset of crisis raised the salience of work on financial governance considerably, both editors and contributors might be forgiven for a sense of exhaustion related to the hot pursuit of a moving target. This has meant that the purpose of the volume has evolved rather rapidly over the past three years. The volume began life as an analysis of the record and historical experience of the ‘new international financial architecture’ developed in the wake of the emerging market crises of the 1990s and early 2000s. The analysis yielded the conclusion that not all was functioning as effectively as the architects believed. The aim was to challenge the apparent complacency of the period of calm following the Argentine default, and to stimulate new thinking based on the understanding and reading of the evidence that all was not well and that fundamental flaws in global financial governance required urgent attention.
By August 2007, when an early version of the manuscript was ready and much of the research findings had been discussed in workshops, it became clear that the usual crisis rumblings but of unusual force were beginning deep below the fine edifice constructed by the architects.
Early in the new millennium it appeared that a long period of financial crisis had come to an end, but the world now faces renewed and greater turmoil. This 2010 volume analyses the past three decades of global financial integration and governance and the recent collapse into crisis, offering a coherent and policy-relevant overview. State-of-the-art research from an interdisciplinary group of scholars illuminates the economic, political and social issues at the heart of devising an effective and legitimate financial system for the future. The chapters offer debate around a series of core themes which probe the ties between public and private actors and their consequences for outcomes for both developed markets and developing countries alike. The contributors argue that developing effective, legitimate financial governance requires enhancing public versus private authority through broader stakeholder representation, ensuring more acceptable policy outcomes.
For global finance, the year 2008 may prove to be a watershed. The collapse of Lehman Brothers on 15 September of that year brought the global financial system to the brink of meltdown, and much of the world has been experiencing the deepest recession for more than half a century. Only the timely intervention of public authorities prevented a rerun of the 1930s depression. A consensus formed around the unsurprising conclusion that global financial governance was in need of reform – both to ensure a more effective and coordinated crisis response and to prevent a rerun in the future. At least ex ante, the London G20 Summit in April 2009 and the Philadelphia follow-up held in the autumn of 2009 were hailed as stepping stones to an overhaul of the global financial architecture. Many observers saw an opportunity for wholesale reform, which had been so conspicuously absent after the crises of the late 1990s and early 2000s, as Helleiner and Pagliari have argued in Chapter 2.
The speed and drama of the crisis have meant that the contributions to this volume ran the risk of obsolescence before they could be published. The crisis might well have ushered in sufficiently dramatic change as to relegate many of the institutions, norms and practices analysed in this book to the dustbin of history.