Published on April 7, 2021 by DW Documentary
Why is the world constantly on the brink of a new financial crisis? This film explores the reasons for our risky financial system, and looks at how the financial world could be reshaped to be better prepared for the future.
Since 2008, trust between citizens and financial systems has been deeply shaken. Many were left wondering how things could go so badly wrong. And there’s no sign that the world has broken out of its spiral of crisis after crisis. The billions thrown around on financial markets have no positive effect on ordinary people. There’s now growing anger, and a determination that the current economic system, in which money means power, must finally be cleaned up. Politically, things haven’t improved since the last crisis – if anything the opposite has happened. This documentary gives voice to economists, historians, journalists, artists and activists. Given the current pandemic, it’s more clear than ever that the system needs to be challenged. Only then can we overcome the economic, political and climatic problems of the future.
* * *
“Demystify the financial sector”
We’re now going to demystify our credit cards. Take out your credit cards. Lift them up! They connect you to the financial sector. Let’s hold on to each other… Through our credit cards. Now close the circle. Imagine. Imagine… Imagine that we’re opening a joint account. Let’s share out PIN code, digit by digit… “8, 6, 7, 3, 8, 1, 2, 6…”
[Narrator] Do you also believe that your credit cards are cursed — and that an all- powerful financial sector controls our existence?
Do we trust our bank advisers?
[Narrator] The overwhelming might of the financial sector is increasing – and more crises are on the way.
Do we trust the invisible hand of finance?
The financial sector and the real world continue to drift apart — so the next crisis will likely be worse than those that came before.
Finance ended up becoming the master of the economy, not the servant.
How could you not be angry at the way in which tens of millions of people were thrown into misery and unemployment, and the banks, which guaranteed the incomes of the tiny elite, were subject to such generous rescue?
What will future crises look like? It’s impossible to say, but a crisis always hits the weakest the hardest.
Is this the end?
Things don’t look so good…
Are we ready for the Next Crisis?
A Film by Eve Minault
[Narrator] This is the story of a divorce, the end of a marriage of convenience between the financial sector and its customers, between average people and bankers. Over the last few years, trust between the two sides has declined, and they are further apart than ever. But the financial sector is still doing business as before, and its influence on the global economy continues to increase. Many believe that this imbalance is responsible for the numerous crises that plague us today: The 2007-2008 financial crisis, and the austerity policies that followed — political crises that have shaken democratic societies — and the climate crisis that’s now making headlines. The financial sector controls billions of dollars, and that can have a serious negative impact on large numbers of average people. Has the financial world taken us hostage? When did the politicians lose control of the financial system? And will we be able to deal with the next crisis? Let’s see what sort of options are available. An alternative system is not only possible; it will be essential if we are to master the challenges that lie ahead.
[Prof. Marcel Fratzscher] The financial sector is enormously important for any economy. Think of the financial system as a human body: capital resources are the white blood cells that bring oxygen and nutrients from one part of the body to the other. They distribute these materials throughout the system.
[Laurence Scialom] The original function of this sector was to finance a country’s economy — and to provide support for individuals, companies, and institutions in times of financial difficulty. Let’s say your car or refrigerator breaks down. If you don’t have the money for a new one, you can borrow it. The primary task of the financial sector is to make that money available. In addition, it also promotes investment into production. The profits that result are then used to repay that investment. So the financial sector helps people and businesses to invest for the future. That’s one of the fundamental and very positive aspects of a market economy.
[Narrator] There’s no finance without credit, and no credit without a banker. Ah yes, the good old bank advisers. They manage our savings, and provide us with financial advice and support.
[Clément Fontan] To understand how a bank works today, we have to move away from old ideas. Banks don’t just manage the money of average people and then lend it to investors who take risks. Rather, banks borrow money from other market institutions, and re-invest it. That’s how banks have become more and more dependent on the financial markets. And as a result, banking has become more unstable, more prone to booms and crashes; and the banking sector now has a larger presence in our society than it used to.
[Gillian Tett] Finance in the 20th century became an end in itself. Essentially, money started moving in these never-ending loops, and financiers became… made money by using money to make more money.
[Christian Chavagneux] If you just let bankers and financial experts do what they want, the same thing always happens: they compete with each other, and take huge risks. That creates a speculative bubble. Then the bubble bursts, and banks run out of money and stop lending. Businesses and consumers can’t get the loans they need. Loans are the life-blood of the economy — and if that blood stops flowing, there will be a collapse.
[Narrator] In other words, a financial crisis. To help prepare for future crises, it can be helpful to take a closer look at the past. The first major documented financial crisis was the so-called “tulip mania” in Holland during the 17th century. Tulips had recently been introduced in Europe, and became quite popular. A speculative bubble developed when future contract prices for tulip bulbs went through the roof. The value of a single tulip bulb eventually reached that of, in succession, a cow… several pigs… a mansion… And finally, a yacht.
The speculation continued until February 1637, when the bubble burst. People figured out that it was insane to pay that much for a tulip bulb, so they stopped buying — and the price collapsed.
[Narrator] Boom-and-bust cycles came and went regularly over the next several centuries. But they always followed the same pattern. A financial “wizard” discovers a new way to make money, a speculative bubble forms and then bursts — and a financial crisis follows. Speculation in stocks led to the Wall Street crash of October 1929, which in turn signaled the start of the Great Depression. US unemployment eventually reached nearly 25-percent. The president at the time – Franklin Delano Roosevelt – sought to restore confidence by regulating the financial sector, including the banks.
A well-regulated financial sector will help to keep an economy stable. From the 1850s until today, there were numerous financial crises in various countries around the world — with one exception: there were almost none between 1945 and 1975. Why is that? Because all countries followed Roosevelt’s example from the 1930s. They imposed regulatory measures on the banks, both at the national and at the international level. So over a period of about 30 years, there were almost no financial crises.
[Narrator] So everything was fine. Order was restored in the financial markets. Economies were stable and citizens could enjoy the benefits of prosperity. That is, until the global financial crisis of 2007-2008. Banks extended credit hand over fist, politicians looked the other way, speculative bubbles formed — and then burst.
What was happening in finance before 2007 was that you had a tiny tribe of specialists who controlled a technology that nobody else understood, to do with a re-packaging of financial instruments. And because they had sole control of this technology and this knowledge, and because they spoke a language which was completely incomprehensible to anyone else… I used to say they spoke ‘financial Latin,’ like the priests in the medieval Catholic church. And because this language and this knowledge was making them very rich, they became incredibly arrogant and incredibly dominated by what I call ‘tunnel vision.’ They simply couldn’t see out of their tiny little worlds, and couldn’t see the consequences of what they were doing.
Their methods are so complicated and incomprehensible that the regulators just let them do whatever they want.
[Narrator] Traders used a practice called “securitization” to sell packages of debt — including SPVs, CDOs, and CDSs. Many were based on sub-prime mortgages. The market soon became flooded with these debt products, and eventually collapsed. But how exactly did that happen? How did these “Wolves of Wall Street” get away with it?
[Clément Fontan] In the 1970s, the ‘theory of efficient markets’ became increasingly popular. It says essentially that markets should be allowed to regulate themselves. According to this theory, markets will operate more efficiently, because those who actually work in the financial sector know the markets better than government regulators do.
[Katarina Pistor] Even the most progressive lawyers, whether in legal academia or in law firms, or the students that we teach, for a long time have fallen for the belief. So the goal was to make markets more efficient. The goal was to ensure that shareholders and corporations can really control what’s going on. And so if you give them all the right incentives, then the right outcome will happen.
But that didn’t work. Why? Because these periods of euphoria and crisis are based on a kind of collective irrationality. The financial players are no longer able to work out solutions among themselves, so outside intervention is required.
[Narrator] The sub-prime mortgage crisis shed light on a dark corner of the financial sector: traders were making deals that were so risky that they threatened the U.S. economy. The U.S. and Europe were rocked by this crisis. Those responsible were facing possible criminal charges. And the world leaders who’d done little to prevent the collapse then promised to steady the ship.
[President Obama] We brought the global economy back from the brink. We laid the groundwork today for long-term prosperity, as well.
[Narrator] “Long-term prosperity” is an ambitious goal even in the best of times. The leaders agreed to ban extremely risky transactions, and ordered banks to increase their emergency reserves. Their top priority was to rescue the world’s banking system. Central banks would play a key role in this effort. The U.S. Federal Reserve fired up the printing presses, pumping more money into the ailing economy.
Central banks, in their current form, have only been around since the end of the 19th century. Their primary function is to keep prices and currency stable – to guard against inflation and stock-market crashes. Central banks are the link between politicians and the financial system. These institutions regulate that system so that it doesn’t exert too much influence on society.
[Narrator] The European Central Bank started lending huge amounts of money to individual banks, because they were too nervous to lend to each other. And while the ECB dealt with this situation, more trouble appeared on the horizon.
[Isabel Schnabel] In Europe, the global financial crisis was followed by a second emergency, and this involved the European currency. It exposed weaknesses in the financial system as a whole, and problems with sovereign debt in particular. It started when Greece revealed that its finances were in worse shape than previously thought. This crisis spread throughout the Eurozone, and raised serious questions about whether the common European currency could survive.
Investors in Italy, Spain, and even France panicked, and tried to dump their government bonds.
[Isabel Schnabel] ECB president Mario Draghi then made a policy statement that would become famous.
[Narrator] Draghi soon became known as “Super Mario” for his role in dealing with the crisis. He dismissed speculation about the end of the Euro, and the solvency of individual EU countries.
[Mario Draghi] Within our mandate, the ECB is ready to do whatever it takes to preserve the Euro. And believe me, it will be enough.
[Prof. Marcel Fratzscher] Draghi promised to take all necessary measures to protect the Euro, and to put an end to speculation in the financial markets. The politicians had failed to stop it, so the ECB had to step in to try to keep things from getting even worse.
[Isabel Schnabel] It was a highly unusual move — and some EU states criticized it, especially Germany. There were questions about whether this decision was compatible with the ECB’s mandate. But others said it was the most successful monetary policy measure ever, because it calmed the markets — and the policy itself was never fully implemented. That’s what’s so unusual about it.
[Christian Chavagneux] By law, the ECB does not have the right to finance government debt. At the time, Draghi said, ‘I’m not financing sovereign debt; I’m buying promissory notes from investors.’ But he was obviously financing the sovereign debt of EU states, through the ECB. His goal was to curb inflation, promote economic growth, and create jobs.
[Narrator] To sum it up, the central banks in Europe and the US spent huge amounts of money to bail out the banks, and restore some order to the financial sector. And what was the result? Did all that new money strengthen the global economy? It did not. In fact, it did just the opposite.
[Adam Tooze] Government debt soared as a result of the crisis. Central-bank balance sheets will never look the same again. Interest rates have plunged to zero. We have the threat of, as it were, the ‘zombification’ of a large part of the corporate sector, which is being kept alive by extraordinarily low interest rates. And growth rates and productivity growth rates have all fallen very considerably since the early 2000s, and really quite dramatically since 2008. And so, we’re left with this deeply uneasy sense that we don’t really quite understand the world that we’re in. We know it isn’t the apocalypse, but quite what kind of a world it is very unclear.
[Narrator] And there are fears that a new financial crisis may strike soon, because real reforms have not been imposed.
There have been no major changes in the way that banks operate, and no serious changes in the structure of the financial system. So the same situation that led to the financial crisis of 2007-2008 is still in place. No-one has addressed the problems caused by financial imbalances. So instead making a fresh start, the politicians just poured more money and financial instruments into the system.
The measures that were taken did not go far enough. Most important, they did nothing to address the growing divide between the financial sector and society as a whole — so now, part of that sector no longer serves society, but pursues its own interests exclusively.
[Narrator] Many average people feel betrayed. Their tax money helped to bail out the banks, but consumers got nothing in return.
The losers are the populations of Europe and the United States, which suffered the immediate effects of the fallout, the ten- to eleven million American families that lost their homes. This is the largest forced movement of Americans since the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. And in the Eurozone, even more acutely, the millions of people who were driven into unemployment between 2008 and 2013-2014, and where government policy really failed to respond in a way which would have enabled them to escape that.
People don’t realize how much the financial sector affects their lives. They may experience some aspects of it, but they don’t realize how much damage a financial crisis can do. And we keep having these crises because no-one wants to push through reforms — and we all pay a price for that.
[Narrator] Why has our financial system become so unstable? We seem to have learned nothing from previous crises. The regulators seem powerless to fix things — and the next financial disaster could already be in the works. After the financial meltdown of 2007 – 2008, the politicians focused most of their efforts on regulating the banks. But other sectors of the economy may be on shaky ground, as well.
[Isabel Schnabel] After the crisis, the authorities imposed strict regulations on the banks. This was expensive and time-consuming for the banks — so a lot of them shifted some of their transactions to non-bank institutions, where there’s less regulation. This is called the ‘shadow banking’ sector. But that term is misleading. These non-bank companies don’t really operate ‘in the shadows.’ They include insurance companies and investment funds, and they pretty much regulate themselves.
[Narrator] A shadow financial system, where traders — far from the prying eyes of regulators — buy and sell all kinds of financial products. And in broad daylight. The shadow financial sector has become a bit more transparent in recent years, but huge sums continue to flow into it. A lot of this money is parked in tax-havens, which are often difficult to trace.
Tax havens are opaque. No-one knows how they operate or how they finance themselves. Tax havens create more risk in international finance, and that can lead to instability.
One of the ironies of what’s happened in the last decade is that the shadow banking sector was a crucial reason why the last financial crisis happened. And essentially, you’d think that because of that, in the years after the crisis, regulators would have shut down the shadow banks. And there was some decline initially. But in reality, the shadow banks are actually in some ways becoming more, not less, important.
[Narrator] Why can’t the regulators do more to rein in these financial institutions? The answer to that question is complicated.
[Prof. Marcel Fratzscher] There are several reasons why it’s so difficult to impose reforms in the European financial sector. First, financial institutions have to be able to compete on a global basis. Banks in France or Germany always keep an eye on what’s happening in the US or Asia, and adjust their market strategy accordingly, so that they can compete effectively. And in the U.S., we’re seeing a trend toward the easing of regulations on banks. This would allow them to take more risks, which would give them an advantage over European banks. So we need a global solution. All banks and other financial institutions should play by the same rules. The second big problem in Europe is that financial-sector lobbyists have a powerful influence on the politicians.
[Narrator] At the European parliament in Brussels, there are three times more lobbyists than politicians. These lobbyists are often recruited, at handsome salaries, from government and the private sector — so they know quite well how the game is played.
[Aline Farés] When politicians, at the national- or European level, are writing legislation, there’s a lot of input from experts. And when it comes to legislation that affects the financial sector, the ‘experts’ are often people who work at banks or investment companies. Financial institutions consider themselves quite innovative: they keep coming up with new ways to make money, and they’re often one step ahead of the regulators.
[Narrator] Let’s be honest: average folks tend to take the word of experts at face value. That’s especially true when it comes to the financial sector. Most people don’t take the time or make the effort to understand what’s really going on. That needs to change…
First of all, we have to take the mystery out of finance. Bankers and others have to stop using jargon, so that average people can understand what they’re saying and doing. The financial sector has to become more transparent.
[Narrator] Today, more and more people are taking an alternative approach to finance. They’re generally opposed to the big banks, and they encourage people to learn how the system works.
[Luce Goutelle] Little by little, people are trying to take the mystery out of the financial sector. They’re trying to approach the subject in a way that’s more interesting and less technical. The financial sector affects the lives of all of us — our environment, our food, our health-care system, and our children’s education. That’s why we need to have a say in how that sector operates. We have the right to demand accountability from these people.
Why do the Eurocrats and the politicians in the Brussels bubble behave the way they do? Why do they make policy decisions that seem completely absurd to us? They all stick together, and they often don’t leave that European bubble at all, so they have no contact with the outside world. That’s why their policies seem completely detached from reality.
The words ‘banking and finance’ make a lot of people feel insecure. They don’t understand the technical terms, and they can’t talk about it with any level of expertise.
[Narrator] But we have no choice. We have to get involved with the financial sector — and as quickly as possible. Future developments could have devastating consequences for the global economy. For example, there’s been a big increase recently in social inequality. And many middle-class Europeans and Americans who were hit hard by the last financial crisis are still angry about it.
[Adam Tooze] There’s this sense that this is no longer an economic system that can really maintain the plausible fiction that we’re all in this together, that we’re all basically in the same boat, and that economic growth raises everyone’s standard of living in a way, which is broadly speaking similar. That’s just a… counter to fact as an experience of the last 20 to 30 years.
[Clément Fontan] The 2007-2008 financial crisis fueled the protests and the political anger that are spreading across Europe today — because those who caused the crisis actually benefited from it.
[Narrator] The huge amount of money that was pumped into the market… Not this market… This one… did not stimulate the economy; it just prompted more speculation.
[Clément Fontan] People who live in countries like Greece, Spain, Italy or Ireland are growing increasingly angry — because of the harsh austerity measures that were imposed there after the Eurozone debt crisis. Those countries accepted those measures in return for loans from the ECB and other EU countries to help them get their economies moving again.
[Narrator] So the bank bailout added to the debt of governments, corporations, and individuals. It also undermined the confidence of average citizens.
[Prof. Marcel Fratzscher] That’s one of the big lessons of the global financial crisis. Banks and investment firms took big risks. They said, ‘If it goes well, we’ll make a huge profit — and if it doesn’t, the taxpayers will get stuck with the bill.’ The authorities have to deal with this imbalance, and crack down harder than they did before. Right now, banks and other financial institutions are still making risky investments, because they know that they won’t be called to account.
[Narrator] That certainly appears to be the case. Bankers hardly ever face criminal charges, and convictions are few and far between.
It seems that society is prepared to tolerate this kind of behavior. Average people pay their taxes. But the big banks promote tax- evasion schemes for the wealthy.
To a certain extent, it’s been a story about the elite protecting itself. So most of these products in themselves were not actually breaking the law, because they were designed to exploit weaknesses in the law quite deliberately — and they were designed to exploit weaknesses in the regulatory rules as well.
But when you look at a, like, a contract for an asset-backed security in the 1970s, it might have, like, four or five risk warnings for investors. When you look at a similar document in, you know, in 2007 just before the crisis, um, it’s now 300 pages long rather than 50 pages long and it might have 60 or 70 risk warnings. So the lawyers, once they figure out that something might be risky, they’ll write this in the contract, basically telling investors ‘watch out.’ But the investors never read that; they read it only once the crisis hits. And the lawyers, of course, have made sure that they themselves and their clients are protected by disclosing all the risk factors.
[Aline Farès] They use mathematical models that are supposed to be ‘innovative’ — but they are actually used to evade taxes and get around regulations. This is abuse on a grand scale.
[Laurence Scialom] Once again, we’re dealing with a double standard. And let’s be honest: this situation fuels populism and undermines democracy; it actually damages democracy.
[Narrator] And what do people do when they’re angry, and feel left out of the democratic process? They vote the rascals out of office, and replace them with politicians who promise them the world — but do nothing to promote harmony and consensus. This in turn leads to instability in the financial markets, and could trigger a crisis. The current atmosphere of political instability comes at a time when it’s never been more important for the world to address our biggest challenge: climate change. Some experts say that we have only ten- to 20 years left to save our planet — by radically changing the way we produce and consume energy. These measures could cost up to one trillion euros a year in Europe alone.
Finance is part of the problem in the climate crisis because finance goes after the assets that produce the greatest return. And if oil or coal or any of these assets produce returns, then investors will go and invest in these assets — and as share prices increase, others will follow, and the companies can expand, they have the resources to do so, etc.
[Adam Tooze] If we’re serious about the climate change push, we need a ‘whatever it takes’ moment. We need central bankers to actually creatively employ the enormous power that’s at their disposal. Finance could easily be part of the solution.
[Narrator] Will governments spend as much to control climate change as they did to bail out the banks? Shouldn’t we demand that they do this?
Instead of just buying back securities at random in financial markets, the European Central Bank could use its monetary policies to promote activities that help prevent climate change or reduce social inequality. The EU member states should encourage the ECB to direct its monetary policy toward achieving these goals.
[Narrator] What if the financial sector became the driving force behind this transformation? Some financial experts are getting on board with these new ideas.
A few years ago, Mark Carney — who was governor of the Bank of England at the time — gave a surprising speech. He said he was concerned about risks that people in the financial sector are taking. But he was even more concerned that one day, because of global warming, their clients will be hit hard by climate change and won’t be able to pay their debts. He said that failure to deal with global warming will lead to instability, so the financial sector has to take action. He added that regulators, including himself, will keep a close eye on them in future.
[Narrator] But measures to limit climate change will be expensive. One UN official put the cost at 300billion dollars a year. That amount has doubled in less than two decades. Some in the financial sector now realize the threat posed by climate change.
[Gillian Tett] There’s a whole new branch of finance developing, which is trying to take a much more responsible vision of finance. And they’re doing that partly because some bankers believe in it, partly because many of their clients are demanding that, and they want to basically reshape the image of finance in the 21st century, but also because people are realizing that issues like the environment could have big impacts on the prices of assets going forward, and the financial system has to get ready. You can say, being cynical, that that’s just a kind of cynical game, and people are doing greenwashing and pretending to embrace these ideas. Or you can say, actually, revolutions happen when more people think it’s dangerous to stand aside than to get involved.
[Narrator] So what if we’re wrong, and the financial sector is not our enemy? It could turn out to be an important ally as we meet the challenges of tomorrow. And what role can individuals play in all of this?
It’s not enough to know how much a 100 euro investment will yield at ten-percent a year. People have to study the financial system, and learn how it works. They need to learn that banks play a key role, just like the money that we invest with those banks. People will have to take an active part in a democratic debate about the future of the financial system.
Find out more about which markets your bank invests in. Take a look at your bank’s ethics policies — and if they don’t match your values, switch banks. That’s pretty easy to do these days.
It’s crucial to improve people’s understanding of the financial sector. Many don’t realize that if they don’t know how the system works, they can’t invest their money properly.
[Narrator] What’s the best way for people to educate themselves about the world of finance? The textbooks aren’t much better than they were 20 years ago. But today, there are other ways to learn — like a visit to this interactive museum in Paris. What do these economics students think about the current state of the financial sector? Would they consider a career in finance?
Each domino corresponds to one player in the economic cycle. If one of them falls, it can knock down the others. This white domino represents the financial regulators. They can put a stop to this chain reaction.
The memories of the crisis have definitely dampened down some of the crazy extremes and taught a new generation of financiers to be a bit more cautious.
Every educational program should include courses on deontology and ethics — and not just theoretical principles, but analysis of specific financial scandals. You could cite examples of conflicts of interest, and ask: ‘What would you do in this case?
[Narrator] The financial sector needs to improve its record on dealing with issues of ethics. And it also has some catching up to do when it comes to gender equality.
Inès, could you see yourself working as a trader?
It looks exciting, but it’s not a job for a woman.
Do you think women can’t make such decisions?
Can you imagine making those kinds of decisions?
I could, but I wouldn’t want to work with people who don’t share my values.
Traditionally, financial trading floors have been dominated by men, mostly white men. And that tends to lead to an excess of testosterone, and risk-taking, and potentially negative behaviors. But aside from that, having just one type of person on trading desks means that you have again tunnel vision. But the good news is there are more women coming up through finance, and that is definitely to be celebrated. It may be one thing that helps to give a slightly more balanced perspective to finance in the coming years.
[Narrator] 98-percent of the world’s banks are run by men. But more and more women are breaking through the glass ceiling, and moving into the top ranks of global finance — like ECB President Christine Lagarde and US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen. Now, that alone won’t revolutionize the financial world — but we can hope… It’s not likely that the world could handle a new financial crisis right now. There are two options: we can continue to widen the gap that separates average people from financial institutions; or we can return the financial world to its rightful place — where it can help us to build the society that we want. But we can’t do that without bankers — and we have to get involved.
What do you see?
Ok… What do you see?
What do I see? What’s this, a crystal ball? So I’m a psychic now? What do you see in that?
At the moment, my thumb.
What do I see? Hmm… Over how many years?
I see a wonderful future. I think we’re way too pessimistic.
I see people rebelling against the financial system — because they no longer want it to destroy our present and our future.
The system will continue, the inequalities will increase, and so will the protests. All this will not encourage progressive forces in our societies.
I also see a world where technology companies may end up providing the next big shift of finance — and frankly, what people at Facebook and Apple do next are gonna be crucial.
What I see is a storm. What I see is… is tide. What I see is weather. What I see is that constant churning. And those are natural images — and they’re unhelpful because they’re natural. But of course, they press in on us in the age of the Anthropocene. And in relation to that, financial crises are relatively small events.