Appraisal of the movement of the US economy towards financialization changed substantially between the 1980s and 1990s: the judgements, initially critical, became much more eulogistic as the US economy gradually asserted its domination over the ‘global economy’.
During the 1980s, the loss of competitiveness of US firms was at the centre of the debate. In the sectors of the car industry, machine tools, and so on, Japanese and German firms enjoyed growing success. Responsibility was most often laid at the door of work organization methods: the hierarchical system of the United States was said to suffer from structural weaknesses compared with the organizational integration specific to Japanese and, to a lesser extent, German firms. In addition to the issue of organization, parallels were also drawn between the financial systems of the three countries and their comparative performances. Certain authors observed that the classic ownership structure of the Japanese and German models, by protecting managers from capital market fluctuations, encouraged long-term investment, favourable to productivity.
The system in the United States, on the contrary, by favouring the penetration of firms by stock market logic, drove managers to adopt short-term behaviour, harmful to structural competitiveness. The terms of the debate were altered, however, by the crisis in Japan and Germany and, above all, by the exceptional performance of the US economy in the 1990s. In particular, the progress of the United States in the domain of information and communication technologies (ICT) caused perplexity: many commentators interpreted this dynamism as the result of the domination of the economy by market finance. At the junction of these two sets of themes – market finance and new technologies – arose the concept of the ‘New Economy’, which was severely deflated by the bursting of the bubble in March 2000. For certain authors, the upheavals connected with these new technologies are much more important than the institutional transformations pushed forward in the financial sphere.
The singularity of the US cycle in the 1990s is the direct source from whence came the idea that the United States had entered a ‘new economy’, globally freed from the laws that hitherto had governed the production and distribution of wealth (Boyer, 2004). The statistics are indeed remarkable. Between 1992 and 2000, the economy grew at an average annual rate of 3.7 per cent. This growthis similar to that of other cycles; gains in labour productivity, on the contrary, are totally unique: over the same period, hourly productivity grewat a rate of 2.2 per cent per year in the corporate sector and 4.3 per cent in themanufacturing sector, in otherwords at a ratemuch higher than the long-term trends of 1.6 per cent and 2.9 per cent respectively between 1974 and 1999 (Baudchon and Brossard, 2001). Even more surprising, this growth in productivity accelerated at the end of the cycle: in 2002, gains in labour productivity in the manufacturing sector reached 6.8 per cent, then 4.3 per cent in 2003. During the same period (1992–2000), inflation stabilized at an average of 2.6 per cent, while unemployment fell from 7.5 per cent to 4 per cent (in 2000). European performances are not very flattering in comparison. The United States’ renewed economic vigour has been accompanied by the massive diffusion of ICT, in other words the goods produced in the computing, electronics and telecommunications sectors. This expansion is part of a relatively prolonged movement, with the gradual expansion in computing since the 1960s, and the acceleration that occurred in the 1990s with the introduction of computer networks (Bellon et al., 2003).