Markets on Trial: The Economic Sociology of the U.S. Financial Crisis: Part B: Volume 30 Part B


Table of contents

(19 chapters)

Our volume is comprised of six sections: (1) the crisis; (2) its similarities to, and differences from being a “normal accident;” (3) sociological and historical explanations for the meltdown; (4) analyses of comparable speculative bubbles and business cycles; (5) international parallels and consequences; (6) analysis of how we might approach the future development of society and economy; and also a section of postscripts for looking ahead to future policy and prevention. Each contribution addresses its main topic, and concludes with practical policy recommendations for a better future.

Agency theorists diagnosed the economic malaise of the 1970s as the result of executive obsession with corporate stability over profitability. Management swallowed many of the pills agency theorists prescribed to increase entrepreneurialism and risk-taking; stock options, dediversification, debt financing, and outsider board members. Management did not swallow the pills prescribed to moderate risk: executive equity holding and independent boards. Thus, in practice, the remedy heightened corporate risk-taking without imposing constraints. Both recessions of the new millennium can be traced directly to these changes in strategy. To date, regulators have proposed nothing to undo the perverse incentives of the new “shareholder value” system.

Social scientists have long been interested in how political institutions affect economic performance. Nowhere are these effects more apparent today than in the current U.S. financial meltdown. This article offers an analysis of the meltdown by showing how government regulation among other things helped cause it. Specifically, the article shows how regulatory reforms closely associated with neoliberalism created perverse incentives that contributed significantly to the increased lending in the mortgage market and increased speculation in other financial markets even as such behavior was becoming increasingly risky. The result was the failure of mortgage firms, banks, a major insurance company, and eventually the market for short-term business loans, which triggered a general liquidity crisis thereby thrusting the entire economy into a severe recession. Implications for future research are explored. The article also offers a few policy prescriptions and an assessment of their political viability going forward.

The events surrounding the financial crisis of 2008 are well known, and subject to a broad level of agreement. Less accepted are theories regarding the larger context within which this crisis was able to unfold. Much has been made of the financialization of the American economy and the lax regulation of new financial instruments, both of which stem from the trend toward a laissez-faire economic policy that has characterized the United States since the late 1970s. I do not take issue with these claims. Instead, I argue that these developments have an earlier and deeper source: a breakdown in the ability of large American corporations to provide collective solutions to economic and social problems, a phenomenon that I term “the decline of the American corporate elite.” From a group with a relatively moderate political perspective and a pragmatic strategic orientation, this elite, through a series of historical developments, became a fragmented, largely ineffectual group, with a high degree of societal legitimacy but a paradoxical lack of power. I trace the history of this group, from its origins in the early 1900s, through its heyday in the post-World War II period, to its decline beginning in the 1970s and escalating in the 1980s. I argue that the lack of coordination within the American business community created the conditions for the crises of the post-1980 period – including the massive breakdown of 2008 – to occur.

This article argues that the financial crisis has brought to the surface a series of dilemmas that have their origins in the declining affluence of the U.S. economy in the late 1960s and 1970s. When growth faltered beginning in the late 1960s, policymakers confronted difficult political choices about how to allocate scarce resources between competing social priorities. Inflation offered a means of avoiding these trade-offs for a time, disguising distributional conflicts and financing an expansive state. But the “solutions” that inflation offered to the end of growth became increasingly dysfunctional over the course of the 1970s, setting the stage for the turn to finance in the U.S. economy. Paradoxically, the turn to finance operated as the functional equivalent of inflation, similarly allowing policymakers to avoid difficult political choices as limits on the nation's prosperity became more constraining. But the turn to finance no more resolved these underlying issues than did inflation, and as a result the recent financial crisis likely augurs the return of distributional politics to center stage in American political and social life.

This article identifies the institutional factors behind both the emergence of a highly vulnerable financial system and the housing bubble that devastated it. The underlying premise is that the financial crisis was a market failure embedded in and caused by an institutional one. The failing institutions were academic, political and regulatory. The article shows how these institutions were fatally undermined, suggesting limits to the rationalization of finance capitalism. The perspective on financial crisis developed here recognizes the pressing need for reform of the financial markets, and also recommends institutional reforms as critical protections against future system failure.

In this article, we consider the evolution of the US stock market from the 1770s through the early 20th century. Adopting an institutional lens, we conceive of the stock market as an institutional field constituted by socially constructed cultural logics and myths. We focus on the role of the US government as an actor embedded in the stock market field and sharing in the prevailing field logics. Tracking the dominant logics of the stock market field at different historical periods, we examine how these logics impacted government regulatory action upon the stock market, and how those government regulations affected the subsequent logics of the stock market field. Our research included both quantitative content analysis of articles in historical newspapers and qualitative historical analysis of multiple primary and secondary accounts of stock market problems and solutions across more than 150 years. We document how government regulatory action both reflects and shapes the logics of the stock market field.

Both neoclassical and Keynesian economists have widely favored the use of equilibrium models to understand economic activity, but dramatic periods of change such as the current global economic downturn are poorly understood by assuming equilibrium. The economist Joseph Schumpeter tried to inject dynamism and disequilibrium into economic models by arguing for the role of entrepreneurs in creating microeconomic change, and for examining long-term macroeconomic change as represented in business cycles. No economist, including Schumpeter, has ever connected these two approaches to change and these approaches are not typically used as alternative and complementary ways of viewing transformation over time. We suggest that these theories can be connected in a “mesoeconomic” institutional analysis rooted in economic sociology; we demonstrate this connection by examining the US commercial building industry. This industry has changed in qualitatively distinct ways over the past two centuries in what we call market orders, economic orders sometimes lasting for decades or more. In each market order, entrepreneurs of different sorts are able to flourish and push forward institutional changes that result in long-term economic shifts. Credit and finance have been pivotal influences in each market order, a factor supporting Schumpeter's focus on entrepreneurial action and speculation and one not largely discussed today. We view the recent disruption of financial markets as a signal of the destruction of a reigning market order.

We discuss the ways in which the tensions between deregulation and bailouts create fundamentally inefficient markets. Although there is an appetite for the rhetoric of a laissez-fair economic system in the United States, we do not have the political will to operate such a system, as there are always cries for bailouts when a crisis emerges. And bailouts rob markets of the crucial ability to discipline capital for risky behavior. Using the case of China as an example, we argue that the post-Cold War conclusion that state ownership is fundamentally inefficient is premature. The key issue is not state versus private ownership per se but, rather, how well aligned the incentives are within a given system. Some of the economic models we find in reform-era China are actually better aligned and perhaps as transparent as their counterparts in the market economies of the capitalist West. Finally, because China is not caught up on the categorical assumption that private firms are efficient while state-owned firms are inefficient, the country has been able to be an institutional innovator in the area of public–private partnerships, leading to radical new corporate forms.

This essay argues for a sociopolitical approach to the study of the current financial crisis in the United States and other advanced industrialized countries. Such an approach offers a bridge between economic sociology and historical institutionalism that can help analysts identify the ways in which relevant public and private actors experiment with institutional mechanisms that help resolve stock and flow problems as well as consider alternative regulatory forms. In particular, I suggest how comparative analysis and considerations of political struggles can improve our notion of embeddedness and assessment of both proximate solutions and longer term paths of adjustment.

The economic crisis that began in 2008 represents the end of two experiments in social organization in the United States: the corporate-centered society, in which corporate employers were the predominant providers of health care and retirement security, and the “Ownership Society,” which aimed to vest the economic security of individuals directly in the financial markets. The first experiment lasted for most of the 20th century, while the second hardly got off the ground before imploding. The result is that economic and health security and social mobility in the United States have become increasingly unmoored. Organizational sociologists can contribute to a constructive solution by facilitating, documenting, and disseminating locally based experiments in post-corporate social organization.

In this postscript, I argue that a sociological approach to regulating securities markets requires a clear stance on the relationship between price and value, one that combines (a) the contrarian thesis that there are objective criteria by which one can assess value more accurately than the current market price; (b) the constructionist thesis that prices are governed by commonly known beliefs that can vary substantially from the objective reality they purport to reflect; and (c) the realist thesis that the market comprises powerful mechanisms (arbitrage and learning) that, when working properly, close the gap between the contrarian's private belief and common knowledge, thus producing reasonable prices. This integrated “rationalist” perspective understands the real estate bubble as the product of institutional conditions that fostered pluralistic ignorance regarding the extent of bearish sentiment. Regulatory prescriptions focus on support for transparent pricing and a relative evenhandedness in the institutional support provided for bulls/optimists and bears/pessimists.

The articles in these volumes raise a number of important issues that deserve more elaboration in future scholarship. This postscript touches on three of them. The first is the impact of the financial crisis on the discipline of economics and particularly the tendency of that discipline to proceed with little attention to the research of other social scientists. The second is that the speculative excesses in the financial markets require that we think about structural reforms that would create new routes for capital to be channeled to productive purposes. The third is the question of how people in the United States conceptualize the relationship between the state and the market.

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Research in the Sociology of Organizations
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Emerald Publishing Limited
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