Outside the New York Stock Exchange. (Mark Lennihan/Associated Press)
Columnist

Last week, Goldman Sachs agreed to a $5 billion settlement with the Justice Department, admitting to having led buyers of mortgage-backed securities astray in the period leading up to the 2008 financial crisis. But though the fine might seem steep at first glance, it’s merely a fraction of the bank’s yearly earnings. Critics worry that it’s merely a slap on the wrist, one that won’t slow the growth of similar institutions or deter them from wreaking havoc in the future.

Those worries could have merit. Over the past several decades, the financial sector has expanded to take up an extremely large slice of the U.S. economy, a trend referred to as “financialization.” In the United States, finance, insurance and real estate (known as FIRE) now account for 20 percent of gross domestic product, compared with only 10 percent in 1947. Financial institutions have significantly increased in scale and profitability relative to what most see as the “real” economy the businesses that produce tangible goods — which has left the United States increasingly reliant on the financial sector to create overall economic growth.

The imbalance is seen as problematic for a number of reasons. One is a lack of transparency: The financial sector’s complexity, resulting from an increased reliance on largely intangible assets without a fixed price, makes it opaque, impeding regulation and enabling information mismatches that allow insiders to profit at the expense of others. In 2013, one economist estimated that the compensation of financial intermediaries — the profits, wages, salaries and bonuses of the relatively small group of workers providing financial services — was 9 percent of GDP, an all-time high. Many would say that this has led directly to widening income inequality between a small pool of high earners and the rest of society, giving those earners ample reason and resources to sway government policy in their favor.

Others argue that the financial sector is a self-inflating bubble, circulating credit and debt while diverting money that could be invested in a more stable manner and used to create more tangible goods. Indeed, some analysts estimate that only 15 percent of all the money in the market system ends up in the real economy, with most of it remaining in the closed loop of the financial sector.

Presidential candidates on both the left and the right have criticized the United States’ reliance on the financial sector and supposedly lax government regulation. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) has made “breaking up the banks” a key plank of his presidential platform. Yet it remains unclear what this would entail or whether it’s even possible legally. After all, much of the federal regulation suggested after the 2008 financial crisis has yet to be finalized, and the U.S. financial sector is still an important national asset, serving more than purely economic purposes.

What has been behind the financial sector’s growth over the past several decades, and how has its expansion affected government, businesses and individuals? Is financialization to blame for an economy more prone to booms and busts, and has it produced any positive outcomes to balance this out? With the financial sector so deeply entrenched in the U.S. economy, is there a feasible path to de-financialization, and is that even a useful goal?

Over the next few days, we’ll hear from:

Costas Lapavitsas, economist at the University of London,

Michael Hudson, economist at the University of Missouri and former Wall Street analyst,

James Lardner, communications director of Americans for Financial Reform,

Gautam Mukunda, Harvard business professor,

Martin Neil Baily, senior fellow at Brookings Institution,

Anat Admati, Stanford professor of finance and author of “The Bankers’ New Clothes,”

Mike Konczal, fellow at the Roosevelt Institute