The bank and the casinoPosted: January 18, 2021
In my hometown the bank building had a plaque on it, honoring Forbes McLeod, a policeman killed on Friday, Feb 2, 1934 in a gunfight with men robbing the bank. This bank robbery was considered of minor historical note as it was one of the first to involve machine guns.
The robbing of banks with guns has formed a theme of American movies possibly culminating in Heat (1995). What was the last good bank robbery movie? Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead (2007)? The Town (2010)? Has there been a good bank robbery movie in the last ten years? Who knows, maybe there will be another one soon.
The bank as “the place where the money is” has become less and less true. The bank buildings aren’t even impressive anymore. The bank as a physical place has become less significant.
If you have extra money, you have a good problem. What should you do with it*? “Put it in the bank” used to be a good answer. The money would be safe there. Even if the robbers took it, it would be covered. Right around the time Patrolman McLeod was killed, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, FDIC, was formed.
Your money would be safe at the bank, and not only that, it would grow as it gained interest. Compounding interest is a powerful force, and this would be good. It was certainly better to put your money in the bank than to, say, take it to the casino.
However, many changes have happened since I was a kid being taken to the bank on a round of errands. These changes have happened very fast.
One change is that interest rates went down. And kept going down. This begins with the Federal Reserve Bank, and trickles down to your bank. The Federal Reserve is keeping interest rates down because it adds fuel (money) to the economy. Keeping money in the bank is a less good option as interest rates go down, so people don’t put money there, so more money flows around.
Another change that happened is that banks got deregulated**.
Restrictions on the opening of bank branches in different states that had been in place since the McFadden Act of 1927 were removed under the Riegle-Neal Interstate Banking and Branching Efficiency Act of 1994.
for instance. Conglomeration, mergers, big national and international banks could expand.
Deregulation also meant that banks got more and more freedom to take their deposit money and make all kinds of risky trades, hedges, and hedges of hedges with it. What the bank does now is bundle up money and take it over to the casino.
Sensibly enough, you may wonder if you should stop putting your extra money in the bank, and instead put it in the casino yourself.
Imagine a casino. Grand and intimidating. No one robs the casino, except Danny Ocean, and only when he has exactly the right ten for the crew, and that’s just in the movies. You don’t rob the casino because the casino is not screwing around. The casino might look funny on the outside, but that’s a trick. The casino is a machine to get as much money flowing through it as possible, and take some of the money.
The casino may look kind of appealing, especially when you keep seeing rich people walking out of it. But the casino is deadly serious. They wear suits in this casino. To even be allowed into the casino, you have to talk to a guy, maybe pay a fee.
Once you are inside, the casino is full of sharps. Some of the sharps are very, very rich. The players in the casino speak in sophisticated language that’s hard for you to understand. But if you can figure out the terms, you can place a bet on almost anything.
To place a bet in this casino is not free. The fee for a bet is about $8.95. Not only that, but many of the bets themselves are in significant amounts. There are bets you can make for a dollar or pennies (plus the fee). But some of the most popular bets are in minimum amounts of a hundred or even a thousand dollars.
These rules made this casino seem like something more serious and significant than like a casino casino, a Las Vegas casino. But just because this casino is on Wall Street doesn’t mean it’s not a casino.
Then, pretty rapidly, the rules of the casino change.
First, they get rid of the guy you need to talk to just to walk in. Now, you don’t need to talk to anybody. And there’s no cover. You don’t need to talk to anybody to place a bet. First they let you do that on your computer, and then when phones got good enough, they let you do it on your phone. There’s still a physical casino, but it’s sort of just for stock photos and background footage now. The casino is now totally online.
Next, the casino gets rid of the cost to place a bet. Now, there is no fee. Placing a bet is free.
Not only that, the casino starts marketing itself to young people, with colors and buttons. The online betting interface gets easier and easier. You can play in the casino as if it’s just another app on your phone, as easy to use as Instagram.
Just to eliminate one last hurdle the casino gets rid of the idea of minimum bet amounts. Now, you can do fractional bets, with however much money you have.
Very fast, the once grand and intimidating casino has changed, and now is more or less just an app where anybody place a bet on anything in any amount with no fee.
What happens to the casino, after these changes?
I don’t know, I’m trying to figure it out.
Are the old casino sharps inside happy? Or sad?
Maybe they’re happy at first – hey, lots of dumb money. But then they are overwhelmed. The dumb money changes the logic of the casino.
Do the sharps take their money to a new casino? Maybe even a secret casino? Do they band together and create alliances, even if this is technically against casino rules? Do they come up with new side games and bets?
I truly don’t know.
The friction that kept money from the casino and steered it to the bank has been eliminated. The safe and steady returns that lured money to the bank and away from the casino have been reduced. The bank and the casino are in business together now. Have the bank and the casino merged? They certainly flow together. Money is flowing from the bank to the casino, sure as sun follows moon.
It cannot be an accident that our outgoing president is a former casino operator. The president before him and the president before him and the president before him (who was raised in a casino town) were all surrounded, advised, and funded by leaders of the effort to merge the bank and the casino.
The incoming president was a senator from Delaware for almost forty years. Delaware is actually a real place: it has a population a little less than half that of San Bernardino County, 1/39th that of California. But legally what Delaware is is a jurisdiction for favorable rules for large-scale bank, casino, and bank-casino corporations.
Over half of publicly traded corporations listed in the New York Stock Exchange (including its owner, Intercontinental Exchange) and 60% of the Fortune 500 are incorporated (and therefore domiciled) in the state.
The bank and the casino may physically exist, somewhere, in a strip mall or a tall anonymous building, on Wall Street or in Delaware or in one of many downtown streets with big anonymous buildings, but it doesn’t matter. The bank and casino are all on your phone now.
What happens now?
I don’t know, I’m trying to figure it out.
My second-best speculation is to bet on the casino itself, because the federal government has revealed that one of its major goal if not its only true goal is keeping the bank-casino’s business growing.
My best speculation is that something totally unpredictable will happen. Rapidly growing complexity will have effects no one can predict, this is the lesson of both Jurassic Park and the Nicholas Nassem Taleb books. What happens when stuff like this starts happening?:
No one can predict, it cannot be modeled. After the fact there will be some sage identified who saw it all coming. If there are a million guesses, at least one will later appear kinda right. But it doesn’t really matter. No one can know with any confidence what will happen in such a system.
There could be a panic at the casino. Consider Larry McMurtry’s memory of a stampede he saw as a boy. He was helping to drive about one hundred cattle down an asphalt road:
Men, horses, and cattle were all drowsy, the herd just barely plodding along, until one cow happened to drag her hoof on the rough asphalt, making a loud rasping sound. In an instant that sleepy herd was in full flight, and our horses too. A single sound on a summer afternoon produced a short but violent stampede. The cattle and horses ran full-out for perhaps one hundred yards. It was the only stampede I was ever in, and a dragging hoof caused it.
A dragging hoof can cause a stampede, on a Texas farm-to-market road, or at the bank-casino. There doesn’t have to be a good reason.
Disclaimer: not investment advice, duh. I’m an amateur musing here.
* Jesus had a simple answer that solves this problem.
** in The Uprising: On Poetry and Finance, by Franco “Bifo” Berardi (semiotext(e), 2012) it’s claimed that the word deregulation was “first proposed by poet Arthur Rimbaud, and later reculced as a metaphor by neoliberal idealogues. Dérèglement des sens et des mots is the spiritual skyline of late modern poetry.”