Robert Skidelsky: The big bank fix

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If reformers are to win, they must be prepared to fight the world/s most powerful vested interest

By Robert Skidelsky 

Robert Skidelsky, a member of the British House of Lords, is Professor emeritus of political economy at Warwick University, author of a prize-winning biography of the economist John Maynard Keynes, and a board member of the Moscow School of Political Studies.

LONDON – Two alternative approaches dominate current discussions about banking reform: break-up and regulation. The debate goes back to the early days of US President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “New Deal,” which pitted “trust-busters” against regulators. 

In banking, the trust-busters won the day with the Glass-Steagall Act of 1933, which divorced commercial banking from investment banking and guaranteed bank deposits. With the gradual dismantling of Glass-Steagall, and its final repeal in 1999, bankers triumphed over both the busters and the regulators, while maintaining deposit insurance for the commercial banks. It was this largely unregulated system that came crashing down in 2008, with global repercussions.

At the core of preventing another banking crash is solving the problem of moral hazard – the likelihood that a risk-taker who is insured against loss will take more risks. In most countries, if a bank in which I place my money goes bust, the government, not the bank, compensates me. Additionally, the central bank acts as “lender of last resort” to commercial banks considered “too big to fail.” As a result, banks enjoying deposit insurance and access to central bank funds are free to gamble with their depositors’ money; they are “banks with casinos attached to them” in the words of John Kay.

The danger unleashed by sweeping away the Glass-Steagall barrier to moral hazard became clear after Lehman Brothers was allowed to fail in September 2008. Bail-out facilities were then extended ad hoc to investment banks, mortgage providers, and big insurers like AIG, protecting managers, creditors, and stock-holders against loss. (Goldman Sachs became eligible for subsidized Fed loans by turning itself into a holding company). The main part of the banking system was able to take risks without having to foot the bill for failure. Public anger apart, such a system is untenable.

Premature rejection of bank nationalization has left us with the same two alternatives as in 1933: break-up or regulation. Taking his cue from Paul Volcker, a former chairman of the US Federal Reserve, President Barack Obama has proposed a modern form of Glass-Steagall.

Under the Obama-Volcker proposals, commercial banks would be forbidden to engage in proprietary trading – trading on their own account – and from owning hedge funds and private-equity firms. Moreover, they would be limited in their holding of derivative instruments, and Obama has suggested that no commercial bank should hold more than 10% of national deposits. The main idea is to reduce the risks that can be taken by any financial institution that is backed by the federal government.

The alternative regulatory approach, promoted by Nobel Laureate Paul Krugman and the chairman of Britain’s Financial Service Authority, Adair Turner, seeks to use regulation to limit risk-taking without changing the structure of the banking system. A new portfolio of regulations would increase banks’ capital requirements, limit the debt that they could take on, and establish a Consumer Financial Protection Agency to protect naïve borrowers against predatory lending.

This is not an either-or matter. In testimony to the Senate Banking Committee in early February, MIT’s Simon Johnson endorsed the Volcker approach, but also favored strengthening commercial banks’ capital ratios “dramatically” – from about 7% to 25% – and improving bankruptcy procedures through a “living will,” which would freeze some assets, but not others.

Many details of the Obama package are unlikely to survive (if, indeed, the plan itself does). But there are powerful arguments against the principles of his approach. Critics point out that “plain old bad lending” by the commercial banks accounted for 90% of banks’ losses. The classic case is Britain’s Royal Bank of Scotland, which is not an investment bank.

The commercial banks’ main losses were incurred in the residential and commercial housing market. The remedy here is not to break up the banks, but to limit bank loans to this sector – say, by forcing them to hold a certain proportion of mortgages on their books, and by increasing the capital that needs to be held against loans for commercial real estate.

Moreover, many countries with integrated banking systems did not have to bail out any of their financial institutions. Canada’s banks were not too big to fail – just too boring to fail. There is nothing in Canada to rival the power of Wall Street or the City of London.  This enabled the government to swim against the tide of financial innovation and de-regulation. It is countries like the US and Britain, with politically dominant financial sectors competing to take over financial leadership of the world, that suffered the heaviest losses.

This is the point that the well-intentioned regulators miss. At root, the battle between the two approaches is a question of power, not of technical financial economics. As Johnson pointed out in his Congressional testimony, “solutions that depend on smarter, better regulatory supervision and corrective action ignore the political constraint on regulation and the political power of big banks.”

Such proposed solutions assume that regulators will be able to identify excess risks, prevent banks from manipulating the regulations, resist political pressure to leave the banks alone, and impose controversial corrective measures “that will be too complicated to defend in public.” They also assume that governments will have to the courage to back them as their opponents accuse them of socialism and crimes against freedom, innovation, dynamism, and so on. In fact, this chorus of abuse has already started, led by Goldman Sachs Chairman Lloyd Blankfein.

There is another interesting parallel with the New Deal. Roosevelt got the Glass-Steagall Act through Congress within a hundred days of his inauguration. Obama has waited over a year to suggest his bank reform, and it is unlikely to pass. This is not just because the banking crisis in 1933 was greater than today’s crisis; it is because much more powerful financial lobbies now stand between pen and policy. If reformers are to win, they must be prepared to fight the world’s most powerful vested interest.

Robert Skidelsky, a member of the British House of Lords, is Professor emeritus of political economy at Warwick University, author of a prize-winning biography of the economist John Maynard Keynes, and a board member of the Moscow School of Political Studies.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2010.
www.project-syndicate.org

Comments

Current Threats to University of California Don’t Come From the Outside - $3 Million Spending by UC President Yudof for University of California Berkeley Chancellor Birgeneau to Hire Consultants - When Work Can Be Done Internally & Impartially
During the days of the Great Recession, every dollar in higher education counts. Contact Chairwoman Budget Sub-committee on Education Finance Assemblywoman Carter 916.319.2062 - tell her to stop the $3,000,000 spending by Birgeneau on consultants.
Do the work internally at no additional costs with UCB Academic Senate Leadership (C. Kutz/F. Doyle), the world – class professional UCB faculty/ staff, & the UCB Chancellor’s bloated staff (G. Breslauer, N. Brostrom, F. Yeary, P. Hoffman, C. Holmes etc) & President Yudof.
President Yudof’s UCB Chancellor should do the high paid work he is paid for instead of hiring expensive East Coast consults to do the work of his job. ‘World class’ smart executives like Chancellor Birgeneau need to do the hard work analysis, and make the tough-minded difficult, decisions to identify inefficiencies.
Where do the $3,000,000 consultants get their recommendations?
From interviewing the UCB senior management that hired them and approves their monthly consultant fees and expense reports. Remember the nationally known auditing firm who said the right things and submitted recommendations that senior management wanted to hear and fooled the public, state, federal agencies?
$3 million impartial consultants never bite the hands (Chancellor Birgeneau/ Chancellor Yeary) that feed them!
Mr. Birgeneau's accountabilities include "inspiring innovation, leading change." Instead of deploying his leadership and setting a good example by doing the work of his Chancellor’s job, Birgeneau outsourced his work to the $3,000,000 consultants. Doesn't he engage UC and UC Berkeley people at all levels to examine inefficiencies and recommend $150 million of trims? Hasn't he talked to Cornell and the University of North Carolina - which also hired the consultants -- about best practices and recommendations that eliminate inefficiencies?
No wonder the faculty, staff, students, Senate & Assembly are angry and suspicious.
In today’s Great Recession three million dollars is a irresponsible price to pay when a knowledgeable ‘world-class’ UCB Chancellor and his bloated staff do not do the work of their jobs.
Pick up the phone and call: save $3 million for students!

Posted by Guest Milan Moravec on Feb. 21, 2010 @ 10:02 pm

UCB Chancellor Birgeneau Loss of Trust
The UCB budget gap has grown to $150 million, and still the Chancellor is spending money that isn't there on expensive outside consultants. His reasons range from the need for impartiality to requiring the "innovative thinking, expertise, and new knowledge" the consultants would bring.

Does this mean that the faculty and management of a world-class research and teaching institution lack the knowledge, impartiality, innovation, and professionalism to come up with solutions? Have they been fudging their research for years? The consultants will glean their recommendations from interviewing faculty and the UCB management that hired them; yet solutions could be found internally if the Chancellor were doing the job HE was hired to do. Consultant fees would be far better spent on meeting the needs of students.

There can be only one conclusion as to why creative solutions have not been forthcoming from the professionals within UCB: Chancellor Birgeneau has lost credibility and the trust of the faculty as well as of the Academic Senate leadership that represents them. Even if the faculty agrees with the consultants' recommendations - disagreeing might put their jobs in jeopardy - the underlying problem of lost credibility and trust will remain.

Posted by Guest Transparency on May. 03, 2010 @ 2:17 pm

UCB Chancellor Birgeneau Loss of Trust
The UCB budget gap has grown to $150 million, and still the Chancellor is spending money that isn't there on expensive outside consultants. His reasons range from the need for impartiality to requiring the "innovative thinking, expertise, and new knowledge" the consultants would bring.

Does this mean that the faculty and management of a world-class research and teaching institution lack the knowledge, impartiality, innovation, and professionalism to come up with solutions? Have they been fudging their research for years? The consultants will glean their recommendations from interviewing faculty and the UCB management that hired them; yet solutions could be found internally if the Chancellor were doing the job HE was hired to do. Consultant fees would be far better spent on meeting the needs of students.

There can be only one conclusion as to why creative solutions have not been forthcoming from the professionals within UCB: Chancellor Birgeneau has lost credibility and the trust of the faculty as well as of the Academic Senate leadership that represents them. Even if the faculty agrees with the consultants' recommendations - disagreeing might put their jobs in jeopardy - the underlying problem of lost credibility and trust will remain.

Posted by Guest Transparency on May. 03, 2010 @ 2:18 pm