A report from Italian organized crime watchdog group SOS Impresa claims that the Mafia has become Italy’s biggest bank due to the global economic turmoil. With more access to liquid capital than their actual bank competitors, and with no regulatory oversight, they’re making hard-to-refuse offers to small businesses, and making massive profits at the expense of these small businesses.

According to the report, via Reuters, the Mafia earns 100 billion euros a year and has 65 billion euros in liquidity. Their profits represent nearly one tenth of national output. Their extortionate lending business is conducted “alongside drug trafficking, arms smuggling, prostitution, gambling and racketeering,” so they’re not your average bank. Though they sound like they’d get along with Silvio Berlusconi just fine.

But they have become more like banks in other ways, according to Reuters.

“Old style gangsters handing out cash in bars and pool halls had been replaced by apparently respectable bankers, lawyers or notaries,” writes Reuters. Business owners, unable to get credit through legitimate channels, have turned to these seemingly trustworthy lenders. This process has cost Italy tens of thousands of jobs. Sound familiar?

I mean, what constitutes an extortionate loan? Would a mortgage with an adjustable rate buried in the small print, sold to a buyer by a broker who knew they wouldn’t be able to pay the higher rate (then bundled up into complex derivatives products by investment banks, against which these very same investment banks placed massive bets), be considered an extortionate loan?

While the net effect is something like predatory Mafia lending, it’s difficult to directly compare the two because the blame is so diffuse. Big banks didn’t seek out subprime borrowers, but mortgage brokers had great incentive to do so, and banks had incentive to look the other way.

The assumption that real estate prices would rise continuously, no matter how plainly foolish that assumption was, made this lending non-predatory, in a sense.

Investment banks have duties to their shareholders, and so they did everything they could to get toxic assets off their books, to save their own jobs and their own returns, and so many took positions against the very products they were selling. This is how that business works.

And finally, mortgages, by being chopped up on the secondary market, are almost never serviced by their originator; when your home is foreclosed on, your mortgage broker has nothing to do with it — your debt is likely owned by a trust of investors.

In Italy, extortionate lending has a face, and it is swarthy, scarred, and recognizably evil. He is a loan shark, and he is smashing up your store because you’re late to pay. Here in the States, the racket has no one face, because the loan shark’s duties are split up among many different actors, in a perverse parody of Fordism. The mortgage broker extends the credit though he doesn’t have the money himself; a trust of investors, who have never and will never meet you, come to take everything away.

Try to picture our Mafia’s face, and you’ll see something crushingly banal: a suburban office park in Delaware, maybe. And this is why it’s so difficult to pin blame on any individual. This is why there have been no arrests, and why there likely won’t be. It’s a conspiracy with no center, and no one can agree on who’s to blame.

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