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Masters of the Universe but Slaves of the Market: Bankers and the Great Financial Meltdown


  • Stephen Bell,

  • Andrew Hindmoor

Research Highlights and Abstract

  • This article focuses on the banking crisis in the US and UK.
  • It is essential to understand banker agency and the institutional and structural contexts which shaped such agency.
  • Bankers experienced variegated patters of constraint and opportunity. At one level institutional theories that emphasise institutional constraint cannot easily account for the authority and agency enjoyed by key bankers.
  • On the other hand, bankers were heavily influenced by institutional change in the shape of market ‘liberalisation’, which produced intense levels of competition and pressures to achieve higher profit returns: an exacting form of market discipline.

Bankers and financiers in the US and UK modified institutions and revolutionised the banking industry prior to the 2007-8 crisis. These agents were however heavily constrained and eventually overwhelmed by institutional pressures and wider structural forces that encouraged high-risk leveraged trading and which generated systemic risk. To account for this, institutional theory needs to incorporate a broader canvas of conditioning contexts, particularly the impact of structural or systemic forces on agents and the way in which these are actualised as a form of ‘ecosystem power’.