If you want to know what happened to economic equality in this country, one word will explain a lot of it: financialization. That term refers to an increase in the size, scope, and power of the financial sector—the people and firms that manage money and underwrite stocks, bonds, derivatives, and other securities—relative to the rest of the economy.

The financialization revolution over the past thirty-five years has moved us toward greater inequality in three distinct ways. The first involves moving a larger share of the total national wealth into the hands of the financial sector. The second involves concentrating on activities that are of questionable value, or even detrimental to the economy as a whole. And finally, finance has increased inequality by convincing corporate executives and asset managers that corporations must be judged not by the quality of their products and workforce but by one thing only: immediate income paid to shareholders.

The financial system has grown rapidly since the early 1980s. In the 1950s, the financial sector accounted for about 3 percent of U.S. gross domestic product. Today, that figure has more than doubled, to 6.5 percent. The sector’s yearly rate of growth doubled after 1980, rising to a peak of 7.5 percent of GDP in 2006. As finance has grown in relative size it has also grown disproportionately more profitable. In 1950, financial-sector profits were about 8 percent of overall U.S. profits—meaning all the profit earned by any kind of business enterprise in the country. By the 2000s, they ranged between 20 and 40 percent. This isn’t just the decline of profits in other industries, either. Between 1980 and 2006, while GDP increased five times, financial-sector profits increased sixteen times over. While financial and nonfinancial profits grew at roughly the same rate before 1980, between 1980 and 2006 nonfinancial profits grew seven times while financial profits grew sixteen times.

This trend has continued even after the financial crisis of 2008 and subsequent financial reforms, including the 2010 Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act. Financial profits in 2012 were 24 percent of total profits, while the financial sector’s share of GDP was 6.8 percent. These numbers are lower than the high points of the mid-2000s; but, compared to the years before 1980, they are remarkably high.

This explosion of finance has generated greater inequality. To begin with, the share of the total workforce employed in the financial sector has barely budged, much less grown at a rate equivalent to the size and profitability of the sector as a whole. That means that these swollen profits are flowing to a small sliver of the population: those employed in finance. And financiers, in turn, have become substantially more prominent among the top 1 percent. Recent work by the economists Jon Bakija, Adam Cole, and Bradley T. Heim found that the percentage of those in the top 1 percent of income working in finance nearly doubled between 1979 and 2005, from 7.7 percent to 13.9 percent.

If the economy had become far more productive as a result of these changes, they could have been worthwhile. But the evidence shows it did not. Economist Thomas Philippon found that financial services themselves have become less, not more, efficient over this time period. The unit cost of financial services, or the percentage of assets it costs to produce all financial issuances, was relatively high at the dawn of the twentieth century, but declined to below 2 percent between 1901 and 1960. However, it has increased since the 1960s, and is back to levels seen at the early twentieth century. Whatever finance is doing, it isn’t doing it more cheaply.

In fact, the second damaging trend is that financial institutions began to concentrate more and more on activities that are worrisome at best and destructive at worst. Harvard Business School professors Robin Greenwood and David Scharfstein argue that between 1980 and 2007 the growth in financial-industry revenues came from two things: asset management and loan origination. Fees associated either with asset management or with household credit in particular were responsible for 74 percent of the growth in financial-sector output over that period.

The asset management portion reflects the explosion of mutual funds, which increased from $134 billion in assets in 1980 to $12 trillion in 2007. Much of it also comes from “alternative investment vehicles” like hedge funds and private equity. Over this time, the fee rate for mutual funds fell, but fees associated with alternative investment vehicles exploded. This is, in essence, money for nothing—there is little evidence that hedge funds actually perform better than the market over time. And, unlike mutual funds, alternative investment funds do not fully disclose their practices and fees publicly.

Beginning in 1980 and continuing today, banks generate less and less of their income from interest on loans. Instead, they rely on fees, from either consumers or borrowers. Fees associated with household credit grew from 1.1 percent of GDP in 1980 to 3.4 percent in 2007. As part of the unregulated shadow banking sector that took over the financial sector, banks are less and less in the business of holding loans and more and more concerned with packaging them and selling them off. Instead of holding loans on their books, banks originate loans to sell off and distribute into this new type of banking sector.

Again, if this “originate-to-distribute” model created value for society, it could be a worthwhile practice. But, in fact, this model introduced huge opportunities for fraud throughout the lending process. Loans—such as “securitized mortgages” made up of pledges of the income stream from subprime mortgage loans—were passed along a chain of buyers until someone far away held the ultimate risk. Bankers who originated the mortgages received significant commissions, with virtually no accountability or oversight. The incentive, in fact, was perverse: find the worst loans with the biggest fees instead of properly screening for whether the loans would be any good for investors.

The same model made it difficult, if not impossible, to renegotiate bad mortgages when the system collapsed. Those tasked with tackling bad mortgages on behalf of investors had their own conflicts of interests, and found themselves profiting while loans struggled. This process created bad debts that could never be paid, and blocked attempts to try and rework them after the fact. The resulting pool of bad debt has been a drag on the economy ever since, giving us the fall in median wages of the Great Recession and the sluggish recovery we still live with.

And of course it’s been an epic disaster for the borrowers themselves. Many of them, we now know, were moderate- and lower-income families who were in no financial position to borrow as much as they did, especially under such predatory terms and with such high fees. Collapsing home prices and the inability to renegotiate their underwater mortgages stripped these folks of whatever savings they had and left them in deep debt, widening even further the gulf of inequality in this country.

Moreover, financialization isn’t just confined to the financial sector itself. It’s also ultimately about who controls, guides, and benefits from our economy as a whole. And here’s the last big change: the “shareholder revolution,” started in the 1980s and continuing to this very day, has fundamentally transformed the way our economy functions in favor of wealth owners.

To understand this change, compare two eras at General Electric. This is how business professor Gerald Davis describes the perspective of Owen Young, who was CEO of GE almost straight through from 1922 to 1945: “[S]tockholders are confined to a maximum return equivalent to a risk premium. The remaining profit stays in the enterprise, is paid out in higher wages, or is passed on to the customer.” Davis contrasts that ethos with that of Jack Welch, CEO from 1981 to 2001; Welch, Davis says, believed in “the shareholder as king—the residual claimant, entitled to the [whole] pot of earnings.”

This change had dramatic consequences. Economist J. W. Mason found that, before the 1980s, firms tended to borrow funds in order to fuel investment. Since 1980, that link has been broken. Now when firms borrow, they tend to use the money to fund dividends or buy back stocks. Indeed, even during the height of the housing boom, Mason notes, “corporations were paying out more than 100 percent of their cash flow to shareholders.”

This lack of investment is obviously holding back our recovery. Productive investment remains low, and even extraordinary action by the Federal Reserve to make investments more profitable by keeping interest rates low has not been able to counteract the general corporate presumption that this money should go to shareholders. There is thus less innovation, less risk taking, and ultimately less growth. One of the reasons this revolution was engineered in the 1980s was to put a check on what kinds of investments CEOs could make, and one of those investments was wage growth. Finance has now won the battle against wage earners: corporations today are reluctant to raise wages even as the economy slowly starts to recover. This keeps the economy perpetually sluggish by retarding consumer demand, while also increasing inequality.

How can these changes be challenged? The first thing we must understand is the scope of the change. As Mason writes, the changes have been intellectual, legal, and institutional. At the intellectual level, academic research and conventional wisdom among economists and policymakers coalesced around the ideas that maximizing returns to shareholders is the only goal of a corporation, and that the financial markets were always right. At the legal level, laws regulating finance at the state level were overturned by the Supreme Court or preempted by federal regulators, and antitrust regulations were gutted by the Reagan administration and not taken up again.

At the institutional level, deregulation over several administrations led to a massive concentration of the financial sector into fewer, richer firms. As financial expertise became more prestigious than industry-specific knowledge, CEOs no longer came from within the firms they represented but instead from other firms or from Wall Street; their pay was aligned through stock options, which naturally turned their focus toward maximizing stock prices. The intellectual and institutional transformation was part of an overwhelming ideological change: the health and strength of the economy became identified solely with the profitability of the financial markets.

This was a bold revolution, and any program that seeks to change it has to be just as bold intellectually. Such a program will also require legal and institutional changes, ones that go beyond making sure that financial firms can fail without destroying the economy. Dodd-Frank can be thought of as a reaction against the worst excesses of the financial sector at the height of the housing bubble, and as a line of defense against future financial panics. Many parts of it are doing yeoman’s work in curtailing the financial sector’s abuses, especially in terms of protecting consumers from fraud and bringing some transparency to the Wild West of the derivatives markets. But the scope of the law is too limited to roll back these larger changes.

One provision of Dodd-Frank, however, suggests a way forward. At the urging of the AFL-CIO, Dodd-Frank empowered the Securities and Exchange Commission to examine the activities of private equity firms on behalf of their investors. At around $3.5 trillion, private equity is a massive market with serious consequences for the economy as a whole. On its first pass, the SEC found extensive abuses. Andrew Bowden, the director of the SEC’s examinations office, stated that the agency found “what we believe are violations of law or material weaknesses in controls over 50 percent of the time.”

Lawmakers could require private equity and hedge funds to standardize their disclosures of fees and holdings, as is currently the case for mutual funds. The decline in fees for mutual funds noted above didn’t just happen by itself; it happened because the law structured the market for actual transparency and price competition. This will need to happen again for the broader financial sector.

But the most important change will be intellectual: we must come to understand our economy not as simply a vehicle for capital owners, but rather as the creation of all of us, a common endeavor that creates space for innovation, risk taking, and a stronger workforce. This change will be difficult, as we will have to alter how we approach the economy as a whole. Our wealth and companies can’t just be strip-mined for a small sliver of capital holders; we’ll need to bring the corporation back to the public realm. But without it, we will remain trapped inside an economy that only works for a select few.

Return to “American Life: An Investor’s Guide.”

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Michael Konczal is a fellow with the Roosevelt Institute.