On Sept. 21, 1946, Harry and Joseph Kaufman opened a toy store at 70 Columbus Ave. in Pittsfield.
KB Toys prospered, changed owners a few times and, by 2000, was one of the largest toy retailers in America, with more than 1,000 stores in malls across the country.
That year, KB Toys was bought for $302 million by Bain Capital, a private equity firm headed by future Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. Under Bain, the company borrowed heavily, used much of that money to pay Romney’s firm a large dividend, and went out of business in 2009.
America used to make things. Today, its principal activity seems to be financial engineering.
Banking, investment, insurance, real estate development and the kind of buyout magic visited on KB Toys account for one-fifth of U.S. economic output, compared with about 8 percent for manufacturing. A third of last year’s Harvard Business School class went into financial services, more than any other choice. Hey, that’s where the money is.
How it got there has become a sensitive question. Consider the current fracas on Wall Street over the practice of short selling, a complex bet that a company’s share price will decline. Short selling can produce enormous profits for those with enough nerve and money. Most such gambles nowadays are taken by deep-pocketed hedge funds.
Lately, a scruffy band of amateur traders has declared war on short selling. Using low-cost online brokerage firms like Robinhood, these vigilantes have bid up the share prices of a few companies targeted by the hedge funds. The latter, in turn, have been forced to cover their bets at a loss. One stock, of the video game retailer GameStop, shot up 1,700 percent in a few weeks. At least one hedge fund nearly went bust as a result.
The Robinhood traders are in it not just for the money, but also to bring down a financial establishment they believe has been fleecing Americans for years. While their crusade is now stalled, it has convinced many people that the economy is rigged in favor of the rich.
A plausible fear. It was Wall Street engineers who produced the financial crisis of 2008. That one cost millions of Americans their jobs and homes, and triggered the biggest economic slump since the Great Depression. The government eventually bailed out the banks and investment funds, but largely avoided reforming them. No financial executives went to jail for their role in the crisis.
The Federal Reserve is still bailing them out. It has kept interest rates near zero to help the economy recover from the slump and, now, the pandemic. But, low interest rates disproportionately benefit Wall Street, which runs on borrowed money.
The rich, as F. Scott Fitzgerald observed, are different from you and me. They own most of the stocks traded in the U.S., so, the doubling of share prices over the past five years has benefited them more than the rest of us.
In addition, the tax code loves fat cats. Rates on dividends and capital gains are lower than on wages. Hedge fund managers have their own special tax breaks, as do real estate developers and racehorse breeders.
Such privileges have endured largely because the wealthy wield more power than the rest of us. They are allowed to donate vast sums to political funds and lobbying groups. If they run for office themselves, they can fund the effort from their own fortunes without limit.
Wall Street executives can also meet, legally, with company executives to glean information not available to ordinary investors.
America’s widening financial inequality has helped fuel a wave of populist anger, on both left and right. That resentment inspired the Occupy Wall Street protesters a few years ago and, quite possibly, some of the Donald Trump supporters who stormed the Capitol last month. Anger may be high enough for the new administration to try leveling the financial playing field — by pushing for tougher rules against market manipulation, for instance. Also, more disclosure for short selling, and maybe even a financial transaction tax to discourage reckless trading. The latter could produce a lot of much-needed revenue for the government.
While we’re at it, let’s tax all personal income at the same rates and restore the Trump-lowered top brackets to where they were under, say, George W. Bush. Also, give the scandalously neglected IRS enough resources to collect the taxes that are due. If people continue to think the system is tilted in favor of the rich, social cohesion and even public order will be hard to maintain. Besides, all Americans should be allowed to share in their country’s economic success, teachers as well as hedge fund managers.
Then maybe, one day, the U.S. will become a country whose best young minds choose not to work for a private equity firm, but to open a toy store on Columbus Avenue.