by Adam Goldstein and Neil Fligstein
The resurgence of finance over the past three decades represents one of the most remarkable trends in the recent history of capitalism. “Financialization” has become a common byword to describe the growing role of financial markets, motives, actors, and institutions in the operation of the overall economy.
One aspect of financialization that has received less attention is the role of households. As the financial industry has expanded, it has done so in large part by marketing more products to households, such as mortgages, second mortgages, mutual funds, stock trading accounts, student loans, car loans, and various forms of retirement products. But how have households themselves changed their attitudes and behavior in relation to financial markets? Should we view their primary role as that of consumers who supply the raw inputs for Wall Street’s machinations? Or have households also started to think about their own economic activity in more financial terms? What is the scope of popular financialization?
To answer these questions we examined eighteen years of survey data from the U.S. Federal Reserve Board’s Survey of Consumer Finances. We charted changes in the financial activities and attitudes of U.S. households from 1989 to the onset of the financial crisis in 2007. Our goal was to provide a global view of the various ways that households at different points in the income distribution have become more involved with the financial economy, and how this has coevolved with their attitudes towards risk and debt.
The patterns are revealing: In terms of financial consumption, we find secular growth in the use of all kinds of financial products across the socio-economic structure. This implies that financial firms sought out customers for their products and made them available to people up and down the income distribution.