Saturday, December 20, 2008

Bring down the Barons - the disintermediation of Wall Street

I'm doing my Roman Chair back rehab exercises, listening to the Teaching Company's History of the United States*, and learning about how the railroads built fortunes from the deluded Scandinavians of early Minnesota.

Those crazed farmers and woodsmen had only one way to get produce to market -- by rail. They couldn't leave the land, because they couldn't sell it until they owned it, and they only owned it by living on it for a time.

Chumps, in other words.

That feels ... familiar.

Eventually the balance shifted. Roads contested with rail, small farms disappeared, and now a few massive corporations dominate America's food chain. Now they have the power. And so it goes.

Today's Union and Southern Pacific are called Goldman Sachs and Merrill Lynch, though the comparison is kind to the latter. There's no doubt the railways delivered a vast amount of value to many people, the modern equivalents have been a bit more ... focused.

Still, there's no denying that our civilization depends on the flow of money and the funding of productive enterprise. The virtual railway of commerce is at least as important to us as the physical railway was to early 20th century America.

So we need the railway of finance, but do we really need to be paying the conductors tens and hundreds of millions of dollars? After all they've just driven ten thousand express trains off a cliff. Forget texting, they've been snorting coke and shooting 'ludes -- and they ain't giving their money back.

They're not worth what we've been paying, heck, they ain't worth nothin.

So, we need finance, but do we really need Wall Street?

Where's the brokering bottleneck that lets them siphon off so much value -- without competition? How can we break that de facto monopoly, and open them up to the bracing wind of competition?

Yes, we need a non-Bush SEC. Yes, Christopher Cox should join the Bush/Cheney tar and feather party. Those are good Democratic responses. I'm for 'em.

But we need good GOP responses too. True, there are few Republicans left who remember how those work, but we Dems can run a pre-Gingrich simulation of those forgotten voices.

How can we redesign finance so that a great money manager makes, say, $300,000 or so -- and a mediocre one becomes, say, an architect? Maybe we can start by figuring out where the chokepoints are, and how to open those up to some vicious competition.

It's time to break Wall Street, and make commoners of the Barons.

* Incidentally, it's a bloody and horrible story - at least in my 1st edition. Maybe they spruced it up for the current edition.

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