27 September 2011

Banking Mad

Holmes and Watson pursue an errant banker

So the Vickers Commission has reported and made its bland recommendations. In view of the apocalyptic views expressed about the behaviour of the banking sector by Bank of England Governer Mervyn King earlier this year the proposals seem mild indeed. More telling is the eight years that the banks have been given to wheedle, wangle, and reorganise their business to avoid the legislative changes that are proposed having any potential to curb their room for manoeuvre.

Given the devastating consequences of the banks' nefarious practices over the past 30 years the only conceivable response is one of rage. But while rage seems to me quite appropriate, and proposals along the lines of a national audit committee to repudiate much of the debt that is presently destroying our society may be a way of channelling this rage, there is also a need to engage in the debate about the future shape of the banking sector in the UK.

My Green House colleague Thomas Lines has done this with admirable grace and restraint (not to mention some wit) in his recent report The Dog that Didn't Bark. As its subtitle indicates it provides useful historical background to the present limited debate by analysing 'when banking crises did not occur and what we can learn from that'.

Lines reaches some rather unexpected conclusions. If I may risk mixing his extended metaphor (over which he himself is quite scrupulous) he finds that the focus on competition between banks is a red herring. During the nearly three decades following the end of the Second World War when there were no significant banking crises, British banks were not very competitive and operated more like an informal cartel. This was elitist and resulted in the rationing of credit, but it did achieve stable banking.

Interbank lending was also rare during this period. It was the interconnectedness of banks, as much as their size, Lines argues, that left them so vulnerable in the period leading up to the 2008 crash. Its origin lay in the laziness of bankers, who sought easy profits without effort:

'An uncharitable way to describe inter-bank lending would be as lazy banking, since the wholesale markets make it possible to build up a bank's assets without the hard work of developing a customer deposit base.'

The report recommends that banks return to their function within a stable economy: that of unglamorous utility banking, providing a haven for savings and a source of reasonably priced loans. A key recommendation is one that finds a comfortable home on a blog on the theme of Gaian Economics:

'Ecological theory suggests that a system will be most resilient when it is divided into compartments to protect it from external dangers. The banking system should be set up in this modular way too, without financial interconnectedness between banks. For this reason we proposed severe restrictions on interbank lending and derivatives trading, and a reintroduction of exchange controls designed, among other things, to sharply reduce international flows of money between banks.'

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