Recent changes in the world economy and financial markets mark the end of the present standard model of financial capitalism, built up over the last decade or so. In this model, financial stability is mainly based on the self-regulation of the financial sector, which alone assesses the risks produced by its financial innovations.
Moreover, the link between finance and the real economy hinges on an adequate return on investment for shareholders, who punish poor management by making share prices fall, leaving the company open to takeover. The only role assigned to governments is to guarantee free circulation of capital between companies and between countries. As alternative economic models collapsed over the past two decades, public opinion came to accept this model of financial capitalism. Today, governments and labour unions accept profit as the most relevant criterion for assessing a company’s efficiency. This model is experiencing three crises, all of which refer to changes in the relationship between governments and markets.
The first concerns the significant, yet silent, return of governments to the economic playing field. Three of the five richest nations by total gross domestic product have become de facto neo-mercantilist, setting their sights on trade surpluses. China is keeping its currency artificially low in order to increase its trade surplus and lower its costs of production vis-a-vis competitor countries. Japan is pursuing government-oriented policies to bolster its position in high-technology markets. Finally, and to a lesser degree, Germany has been carrying out reforms to restore industrial competitiveness. In addition, countries that have access to natural resources, notably oil and gas, have revenues that serve as both an instrument and aim of their international policy. Trade surpluses have resulted, demonstrating the capacity of governments to acquire massive amounts of foreign assets through sovereign wealth funds. The problems that arise are not economic, but political. Governments may use technology transfer or control of strategic national assets as a means to increase bargaining power in international affairs.