ANALYSIS – America was in crisis at the beginning of 2008. Eight years later, its banks dominate finance like never before. Europe is not yet aware of the sovereignty issues that this represents.
It was only eight years ago, yet it now seems like an eternity. Lehman Brothers was weathering the most resounding bankruptcy in history, the dollar was shaky and the Federal Reserve no longer knew where to turn. Eight years later, the climate has changed. The Dow Jones industrial average is reaching all time highs. The Fed is the first central bank to normalize its policy, causing a new surge of dollar fever. And Wall Street banks have completely regained their position in world financial markets.
The numbers are relentless. In the stock market hierarchy, the U.S. occupies the first three places with behemoths JP Morgan, Wells Fargo and Bank of America, which are once again profit-making machines each worth more than $200 billion. Only a few Chinese can attempt to challenge their supremacy. The number one European bank, BNP Paribas, places only 17th. By itself, JP Morgan is worth as much as the top six banks of the eurozone. American institutions have never really managed to find their place in the private banking sector on this side of the Atlantic. But they have a stranglehold on investment banking activities for large companies. JP Morgan, Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, Citi and Bank of America hold five of the first six places in Europe — their markets have continued to climb in recent years.
There is something paradoxical in seeing the U.S., which was at the heart of the 2008 crisis, dominate the financial world in such a way. How can such a sleight of hand be explained? Why is there such a difference with Europe, which is still cleaning up its banking industry? Should we resign ourselves to this “American diktat on global finance” denounced by some bankers? To answer these questions, we must assess the powerful engines that run American finance. There are three of them: An ironclad pragmatism, an unrivaled capacity to impose their view on matters of regulation, and one unstoppable weapon which is the supremacy of the dollar.
Let’s begin with American pragmatism. It was visible right from the beginning of the crisis. Aware of their initial mistake – letting down Lehman – the authorities reacted quickly. A massive plan to bail out the banks was launched and the Fed inundated the markets with liquidities right away. The sector was consolidated by force, the most fragile institutions leaning on the strongest. Thanks to the strength of their domestic market, a source of huge profits, the new Wall Street behemoths did not take long to regain their strength. And this pragmatism will continue now with the administration of Trump, who has picked a former Goldman Sachs executive as secretary of the treasury, and has given one command: “Let the banks do their job!”
Debate over regulation could further deepen the U.S.-Europe divide. Heated discussions are currently taking place in the Basel Committee, which is in charge of establishing the next cautionary regulations. The European camp, led by France and Germany, fears regulation will be carried out by penalizing its institutions with capital surcharges that will bridle their development and profitability. The regulations wouldn’t be less harsh for U.S. banks. But since banks play a role that is three times smaller in financing the economy in the U.S., the constraints could have a much more depressing effect on Europe’s real economy. Still, the European Union is struggling to present a united front in these seemingly technical negotiations. As is often the case, the EU is not fully aware of the sovereignty issues these debates entail.
Finally, the purest symbol of American power, the dollar, has further strengthened the country’s influence in recent years. Many said it was finished after the crisis and that it was the end of the superiority claimed by the U.S. that allows it to mint money for the whole world. There was nothing of the sort. The greenback still holds a privileged place in international markets that neither the euro nor the Chinese yuan can challenge. It remains the reserve currency of reference. Most commodities are denominated in dollars. World commercial transactions are still largely conducted in American currency.
The strength of the dollar has already played tricks on European banks, and that could still be the case in the future. When monetary funds decided to cut their funding in dollars in 2011, the old continent’s institutions approached the brink of disaster and had to completely overhaul their balance sheets. BNP Paribas was fined a record penalty of $9 billion for having completed transactions in dollars with countries placed under United States embargo. Recently, Peugeot asked French banks to finance its development in Iran. “Too risky,” answered the bank, the country has just barely emerged from the American embargo. The result? The French manufacturer had to turn to a large Wall Street Bank.