Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Splitting The Megabanks

The idea of splitting our megabanks between their high street and casino components is fast becoming mainstream.

We've blogged this many times of course (eg here), and last night the Governor of the Bank of England amplified his own call for such a split. Calling our open-ended taxpayer guarantees "the biggest moral hazard in history", he says:

"Anyone who proposed giving government guarantees to retail depositors and other creditors, and then suggested that such funding could be used to finance highly risky and speculative activities, would be thought rather unworldly. But that is where we now are...

The aim of policy should be to minimise or eliminate that subsidy. Separation of activities helps not hinders that objective, not least because it is the mixture of activities that reduces the robustness of the system."

And we need to get on with it. As we blogged here, zero interest rates and QE mean that the next bubble is already well on the way. This morning the FT's Martin Wolf - labeling our international megabanks cuckoos in the nest - says:

"We must focus on the core issue. Trying to make financial systems safer has made them more perilous... There is a danger that this rescue will lead to still greater risk-taking and an even worse crisis at some point in the not too distant future.

Either we impose a credible threat of bankruptcy, or institutions we have to support are made safer, or, better, we have both of these. Open-ended insurance of weakly regulated institutions that take complex gambles is intolerable. We dare not return to business as usual. It is as simple – and brutal – as that."

Yes, the G20 and the international banking establishment want us to focus on better regulation (such as so-called macro-prudential regulation). And that certainly has a role to play. But we are fooling ourselves if we think our regulators will ever be clever enough to cover all the necessary bases. Governor King is someone who's seen the difficulties of regulation up close and personal, and he says:

"The sheer creative imagination of the financial sector to think up new ways of taking risk will in the end, I believe, force us to confront the “too important to fail” question. The belief that appropriate regulation can ensure that speculative activities do not result in failures is a delusion."

Naturally the megabankers don't want to be broken up - which is why their own economists and pundits issue all those dire warnings about how break-up would undermine the British economy.

But we taxpayers simply can't afford to go on as we are. Relative to GDP, the financial crash hit us harder than any other major economy. As Wolf reminds us, the IMF says UK banks are facing writedowns on bad loans of around $600bn, which is 60% of the US total in an economy that is well under 20% of the size. Bearing risks of that magnitude is not sustainable either for taxpayers or our economy.

So if we're all clear about that, the next question is why are our politicos still in the dark?

Well, of course, they're not really in the dark at all. The reason they don't want to split the banks is that for the last 30 years the financial sector has been the UK's big success story. Broadly defined, it has created 6 million jobs (see this blog), and generated huge amounts of tax revenue. Given our rocky future, politicos of both main parties don't want to accept the Golden Goose may have turned into a cuckoo.

But that just won't do. Yes, there are risks in splitting the banks - especially if we do it unilaterally - but inaction runs the very real risk of an even bigger catastrophe just down the road.

Moreover, we don't reckon a split would lose us the entire investment banking industry. We'd still have the skilled labour force and infrastructure (including the English language) most other European countries lack.

And we could substantially soften the move with some accompanying measures designed to keep the bankers here - eg rescind the new 50p tax rate (see this blog), pledge to end retrospective bank windfall taxes, and promise to continue light touch regulation for non-high street banks. We should have no problem with bankers getting rich - as long as they don't do it at our expense.

Come on George. Think of us taxpayers. Surely you can't be that dependent on megabanker subs?

1 comment:

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