Tag Archives: banking

Is the world heading for a new financial crash?

Yesterdays’ Guardian carried an article entitled Apocalypse now: has the next giant financial crash already begun? by Paul Mason, who is Channel 4’s economics editor. The same paper carried an article last week by David Graeber: Britain is heading for another 2008 crash: here’s why. So it’s clearly becoming fashionable for left wing types to start spreading stories of doom. Could they be right?

Mr Graeber is not a professional economist (neither am I, I should make clear); he’s an anthropologist, in fact. He has written engagingly on financial matters though, notably his book Debt: the First 5,000 years. His enthusiasm is for the big picture and the global explanation. I found his book a huge let-down because he was incapable of analysing more recent financial events at any level below sweeping generalisation.

And so it is this time. His central argument is that enthusiasm for governments to cut their financial deficits means that private debt, at less affordable rates of interest, will pile up. The key strand of evidence is this graph, which shows public, private and external deficits:

Graeber graph

He notes that it is symmetric, because it is based on an accounting identity. So, if the external balance is constant, which it roughly has been, any reduction in public deficit must be matched by an increase in private deficit. Ergo, we are simply swapping public debt for private debt. And since, as everybody knows, the crash of 2008 came about because of excessive private debt, another one is inevitable. He calls this the Peter-Paul principle (ie. robbing Peter to pay Paul).

Oh dear! It’s hard to know where to begin. As anybody with an understanding of mathematics will tell you, accounting identities don’t tell you as much as you might think. They are tautologies: you can’t use them to predict anything useful about the world. I remember, back in the 1980s, another accounting identity, this time on money, growth and inflation, getting people into trouble, as monetarists used it to “prove” that inflation and growth depended on money supply. Alas all it showed was how uselessly elastic are the concepts of money supply and velocity of circulation. A moment’s thought tells you that Mr Graeber’s argument must be flawed. He is suggesting that the amount of debt in the economy remains fixed – and yet it clearly goes up and down. Actually, the amount of debt is fixed – it is a net of zero! For every debtor there is a creditor; gross debt, however, must be independent of the sizes of the sectoral balances. The Peter-Paul principle is not the great taboo of economics as Mr Graeber suggests. It just doesn’ tell you very much. Not nothing, as the FT’s economics writer Martin Wolf, has shown – but it has taken him in a different direction. He suggests that if government austerity is not matched by extra private sector spending, the economy will shrink. An altogether more subtle point.

Mr Mason’s line of argument is sounder, in that it is based on more factual evidence rather than airy assertions. His line of argument is that aggregate debt has continued to rise, but the world economy has stalled, so that debt will be unrepayable, and so there will be a financial crisis. But this is still lightweight fare, based on aggregated data, which may be unreliable, and not on the specifics of who owes what to whom. The problem is that the world financial system is a very complex thing. It very hard to attribute cause and effect – or rather it is all too easy, it is just impossible to prove that you are right. The financial crash of 2007/2008 came about with the convergence of a number of things, of which the reckless build-up of private sector debt was only one (rising oil and food prices, reckless use of off-balance sheet finance by banks, persistent trade surpluses from China and oil states, a false sense of security from central banks – to name but a few).

One thing we can say is that the world in 2015 is very different from that of 2007, when the last crisis started. It is commonplace in left-wing circles to suggest that nothing has changed in the world of international banking since the crash. Well some banks are making money again, and some bankers are taking outrageous bonuses. But there are many fewer of them; there is much less profit sloshing around. The banks have been forced by regulation and bitter experience to be more prudent. Off-balance sheet finance, at the heart of the 2007 crisis, has been drastically reined in. And the world financial situation is very different, with low oil and commodity prices, a fading China, and the US fast becoming self-sufficient in hydrocarbons.

But that may not offer us much reassurance. We may not be heading for another 2007/2008 but we could still be heading for something nasty. There are four things that could be a sign of trouble:

  1. There are asset bubbles in some places. What is referred to as “emerging market” assets are the most spoken of: debt, shares and property located in China and various parts of the developing world. But there are others: London property and US shares come to mind. Some suggest that developed government bonds are in a similar bubble, as their prices are historically high, but Japan has shown that these prices can stay high for a very long time indeed.
  2. Central banks are running with ultra low interest rates, meaning that the main arm of monetary policy is not available. Quantitative Easing (QE) is problematic. This leaves them without the firepower to deal with a crisis as it emerges – or so many people think. In fact the dynamics of monetary policy have moved well beyond textbook theories about money supply and inflation expectations, leaving us unable to understand how things work.
  3. The maturing of China and the rise of shale oil and gas in the US have changed world financial and trade dynamics fundamentally from the pattern of the last two decades. I suspect the new pattern is more stable than the old one in the long run – but any such change tends to cause dislocation. It may, for example, become much more difficult for many countries, including Britain, to finance their deficits (the blue bit in Mr Graeber’s graph could shrink).
  4. International politics has become more fractious, making international deals more difficult to do. And populists from left and right are making it harder for governments to intervene to stabilise financial markets – often portrayed as bailing out bankers at the expense of ordinary taxpayers. That will make any future banking crisis harder to manage.

So I share some of Mr Hunt’s and Mr Graeber’s worries. I have my own airy narrative. Since the the Bretton Woods system of fixed exchange rates and gold underpinning was broken in the 1970s, by President Nixon who needed to fund the Vietnam war without raising taxes, the world has been addicted to an increasing cycle of debt. Some of this debt might be regarded as lubrication for the wheels of capitalism. But also there seems to be a bit of Ponzi scheme about it, with debt being repaid by the issue of yet more debt, rather than through substantive economic advance. In the long run, that cannot be stable. And yet it may take a long while yet before the trouble starts to show up.

 

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Are the Muslims right about debt?

The Biblical invocation against usury, making loans for interest, has been discarded by the two older Abrahamic religions, the Jews and the Christians, though it persists in Islam. I used to think the prohibition was another obsolete idea, based on a misunderstanding of the usefulness of finance. But as time goes by, the more I come to see that the biblical fathers, or God if you prefer, were on to something. The dysfunctional nature of financial markets is one of the modern world’s most pressing problems.

This reflection comes on the fifth anniversary of the collapse of Lehman Brothers, which was the point at which the current financial crisis broke out into the open. This has lead to a flurry of newspaper comment. I was most drawn to an article by Gillian Tett in the FT, covering a talk given by Adair Turner, the former head of Britain’s financial regulator, the FSA. Unfortunately this behind the FT paywall, and I cannot find coverage anywhere else. Lord Turner produced a blog, but this only covers part of the subject matter, and not the most interesting bit reported by Ms Tett. Lord Turner says that we have not really come to grips with the failure of financial markets that became evident with the Lehman episode.

The most eye-catching thing about financial markets, which is the main point made in the blog, is the explosion of private sector debt. In 1960, according to Lord Turner, household debt in the UK was just 15% of total income; by 2008 it has risen to 200%. If you start to add up loans made by financial institutions to each other, then even that figure looks pretty tame (837% according to this rather good Economist School’s Brief on the subject – though this suggests a little confusion in Lord Turner’s numbers on household debt). But the statistic that hit me most forcibly was the claim that only 15% of the money that flows into financial products actually gets invested in proper wealth-creating projects.

Macroeconomists have long been dismissive of the significance of debt and financial markets in their imperious declarations about the state of national and global economies. These are just means to an end, and they all cancel out – one person’s debt is another’s asset; what matters is the real world of what is produced and consumed. Economists are reluctantly having to rethink this, though most would still rather divert the discussion into conventional subjects about austerity and money supply. Lord Turner’s 15% statistic, however, should translate the issue into one which even an old-fashioned macroeconomist can understand. There is a massive gap between what people set aside to save, and what is actually invested. Financial markets are meant to be the channel by which savings are turned into investments – but instead they are simply a smokescreen hiding a black hole, as it were.

Let’s pause for breath, and look at the problem from another angle. One of the critical points of economics, too often forgotten, is that money and financial assets have no intrinsic value. They are simply useful tools by which we can coordinate the process of producing work and consuming its output. You can think of it as being a bit like electricity. You cannot store it. If people want work now, and consume later at leisure, the simple act of putting aside money won’t do the trick. You have to persuade other people to be around to do the work for you when you want to do your consumption. The wider purpose behind financial products is to help us to do this, to balance our over-production now (i.e. saving) with over-consumption later, or vice versa. Theses activities depend on coordination with people who want to do the opposite, and that is what financial markets are meant to do. How? Through investment. Investment is work that is done now to produce things that can be consumed later. This allows production without consumption in money terms to be balanced by a real world equivalent. Maynard Keynes’s great breakthrough was understanding that the failure of the money and real worlds to match was the main cause of recessions.

So if 85% of savings are not actually invested, there is a problem. Where does the money go? There seem to be two main places. Firstly a lot of it consumed by intermediaries – those fat-cat salaries included – to no real purpose. Secondly a lot of it goes into inflating the prices of assets, real estate or financial assets, that exist already. In other words it is a colossal waste of time which simply serves to make a lucky few rich. And meanwhile huge volumes of debt are being created, much of which can never be repaid. Or, to put it another way, we have manufactured vast banks of financial assets which are not worth anything like what we think.

This spells trouble ahead, as this situation will only resolve itself through, one way or another, debt being forgiven and assets written down. The owners of those assets show no sign that they understand this; or if they do, they simply assume that it is somebody else that will pay. Meanwhile the best we can do is not to make things worse. Amongst other things that means continuing to make life miserable for the banks and the financial sector, and hope that, as they shrink, they concentrate on the more socially useful aspects of it work.

What those old Jewish and Christian fathers understood, and Islamic scholars still understand, is that debt creates moral problems by dehumanising the relationship between debtor and creditor. Financial assets are in fact human relationships between real people, which we are attempting to abdicate responsibility for. Alas though, it is unthinkable that our current economic system, with its manifold benefits, can be created or sustained without them. But we would all be better off if we understood the moral and personal implications, and consequent limitations, of financial assets and the markets through which we acquire them.

 

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Barclays scandal: culture isn’t the problem, it’s the money

City traders live in a world of their own.  After the news of Barclays Bank’s fine for falsifying LIBOR returns, its share price rose slightly.  The scandal had been rumbling on for months, and they were relieved that it had been resolved.  They had no idea about the approaching firestorm – which took a big toll on its price later that day.  Later an investor was reported by the BBC (who may have been quoting a newspaper) that all this mob rule had to end.  But as the hue and cry continues (this morning the Barclays chairman resigned), politicians and media commentators seem to be equally out of touch with what lies behind the scandal.  Unfortunately that may mean that nothing useful comes out of it.

The LIBOR issue itself is being blown out of all proportion.  That is understandable.  So much of the unethical practice in the industry go unpunished that when somebody gets caught a disproportionate response is quite rational.  That is the point that City insiders probably missed in their sanguine early reaction.  But most of the comment has focused on the idea that the industry culture is thoroughly cynical and corrupt, and it is this culture that is the main problem needs to change.  Criminal penalties are spoken of for unethical behaviour, and the familiar idea that the payment of big bonuses should be limited.  The Business Secretary Vince Cable has called for banks’ investors to rein the managements in.

That’s all very well as far as it goes.  The culture is awful.  We shouldn’t be too romantic about how things used to be, though.  In the old City it may have been the case that “my word is my bond”, but ripping off clients and living off fat commissions was rife.  One point frequently made is that traditional upright commercial banking culture, such as displayed by Barclays’s Quaker founders, has been corrupted as investment bankers have taken over.  This is also true, but that fusty, conservative, self-absorbed commercial banking culture had to change.  I well remember having lunch once at Barclays HQ in the 1980s: what a gloomy experience, for all the uprightness of those involved – there was no hope of us doing business with them because they would never be ready!  We must look deeper.

The problem is that it is far too easy for big banks to make lots of money without too much effort.  That is absolutely corrupting.  Bankers naturally think that this money is added value for the highly skilled work they do to ensure that money flows to and from the right parts of the real economy.  The rest of us are entitled to be sceptical.  The profits which happen most years are wiped out in the bad years, when shareholders and taxpayers pick up the tab.  The investment bankers have found a number of ways to make bets with other people’s money, take the benefits for themselves, and make sure somebody else picks up the tab if things go wrong.

But that’s not the only problem, here in the UK at least.  There is also lack of meaningful competition.  It is impossibly difficult to set up a new bank to compete with the existing oligopoly.  The remaining banks have been allowed to consolidate into a small number of behemoths.  The regulatory authorities, including the Treasury and the Bank of England, as well as the FSA, have been complicit in this.  They prefer a cosy club of large organisations with big compliance departments than the rough and tumble of competition that, for example, the Americans or Germans experience.

The aim of public policy should be to make banking less profitable, so that the banks can’t pay massive salaries and bonuses, and more competitive, so that customers benefit from real innovation.  This needs the British authorities to do three things in particular:

  1. Make it much more difficult and expensive for investment banking and financial trading operations to secure finance.  Separating investment banking from commercial banking, as recommended by the Vickers Commission, is a good first step, though may not go far enough.  Increased capital requirements, as now being imposed globally, is another.  Regulators need to be particularly hard on bigger institutions, and not let the idea that larger operations are more efficient take hold.
  2. It must be much easier to set up new banks, both in commercial banking and investment banking.  The issue isn’t the amount of regulatory capital required, but a host of other obstacles placed in the path of new banks.
  3. While regulation needs to lighten up on the creation of new banks, it needs to be tightened on the regulation of lending operations.  We should not allow runaway growth of credit, especially that linked to the purchase of purely financial investments, and, it has to be said, to real estate.

All easily said.  But the trouble is that it is quite painful.  Attacking bank profits will look like an attack on one of a limited number of industries where British based operations are internationally competitive.  Easing up on creating new banks means tolerating more banking failures and creating a more challenging environment for regulators.  Restricting credit means curtailing the British love affair with property ownership.

It is easier to bang on about culture and lock a few people up.  The one good thing about the crisis is that it helps keep the pressure up on the Vickers reforms.  But when the dust settles the usual City types will be having a quiet word with their counterparts in the Treasury, Bank of England and the Prime Minister’s office about not throwing the baby out with the bathwater.  The reforms will be quietly defanged.  Bankers will continue to lord up.  Taxpayers will continue to be exposed.  And the British public will continue to be let down by bankers and politicians alike.

Let’s hope that this does not come to pass.  Critics of the banking industry will need to keep the pressure up.

 

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Can our bankers learn from the charities?

My applause for last month’s Budget on this blog looks more out of touch by the day.  The Budget has led to a string of PR difficulties, for which the government seemed ill-prepared.  First it was the age-related allowances, then hot takeaway food, and now it is charitable giving.  Perhaps the back-and-forth of coalition deal making leaves the PR behind.   But what the last week shows above all is just how skilled the charitable sector is at public relations and lobbying.  There is quite a bit of fuss about corporate lobbying in politics, but businesses look flat-footed by comparison.

The wave of protest from charities over the government’s proposed minimum tax on income is building into an overwhelming tsunami.  How have they achieved this, over a relatively obscure rule that affects only a few people?

Inevitably, truth is one of the first casualties in a battle like this.  It’s not that anybody is putting out lies, it’s that a concentrated smokescreen has been built up, so that few people have any idea what is really going on.  There are a couple of fine examples from last week’s radio coverage on the BBC.  One was a survey conducted by one of the lobbyists of charity chief executives asking them whether their charity might be seriously affected.  This was a bit like asking them “Do you want tax relief on charity giving to be restricted?” – not surprisingly nearly 90% said that they were.  This 90% figure quickly did the rounds to give the impression that 90% of charities would be in serious trouble.  In another case one senior person from one of the lobbies was asked how much charities would lose; she replied correctly that this was very difficult to estimate, and then proceeded to give a rather large and rather precise estimate – which quickly got quoted all over the place.  Very quickly the impression has been raised that charities’ income is going to be affected drastically, with the result that all sorts help to the poor and needy was going to get cut back.  Since then a steady stream of charity, arts and university types have piped in to add to the overall impression of impending disaster.

Meanwhile the government response has been a bit weak.  Some Customs and Revenue types were allowed to air their prejudice that most charities were tax dodges – but this idea was no more based on substance than the charities’ claims, and didn’t really help.

And as for the truth, I await some rather calmer analysis from the rather limited number of purveyors of calm, like The Economist.  For now what interests me is the pattern of the PR effort.  The basic idea is common enough from ordinary business PR.  A new regulation or tax is proposed that might force your business to change the way it does things.  So you scream murder and claim that the change will bring an end life as we know it.  Sometimes these claims may be grounded, but most often they are not; the thing is not to think about it too hard.  Anti-pollution regulations offer an instructive example: these are usually opposed vehemently by the industries that they affect; and yet the air and water  gets cleaner while the economy continues to prosper (the most widely quoted example of egregious protest was against sulphur dioxide pollution, in the 1980s, I think).  The general idea is that policy is developed through an adversarial process, like the British legal system.  Make your case as effectively as possible: the truth is somebody else’s concern.

How have the charities been so effective?  First of all they succeed in creating the impression that what they do is for the benefit of poor and needy, both here and abroad. The huge amount of marketing expenditure by big charities like Oxfam and Cancer Research, plus all those public sponsorship campaigns involving celebrities (like the recent Sports aid) help here.  Of course the picture is more complex than this: a lot of charities are about providing elitist education and entertainment (i.e. art) and some are downright nefarious extensions of rich egos.

Given this complex picture, the key thing is to keep solid and keep the message simple.  The supporters of poverty charities have not fallen into the trap of criticising their elitist fellow travellers – as this would fatally complicate the message, as well as opening a can of worms.  A second important point is timing.  The charities waited for the fuss over age-related allowances and Cornish pasties to calm down, before launching an onslaught.  And that onslaught looked well coordinated.  Whether or not their was much coordination I don’t know – but all that’s really necessary is to play follow-my-leader, which needs very little pre-planning.

Positive image for a few key leaders and low profile from the rest; simple oppositional messages; solidarity.  Can that PR disaster that is the British banking industry learn from this?  Banking, after all, has done more to alleviate human poverty than the charities ever will, through easing the path of trade and investment, the two real enemies of poverty.

I don’t think so either.  They don’t care enough about their image, and are too rivalrous to do the solidarity bit properly. Better stick to their usual strategy: passive resistance – the slow, patient picking apart and undermining of reform when the politicians are looking elsewhere.

 

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Capitalism, crony capitalism and neoliberalism. What’s in a word?

Are the Occupy protesters on to something?  Or is theirs just a hopeless battle against abstract nouns?

I have been rather exercised about some abstract nouns recently.  First was the word “Neoliberalism” selected by Simon Titley of the Liberator as one of three Bad Ideas to have infected British politics over the last 30 years, sweeping along the Liberal Democrat leadership with the rest of the mainstream.  The other ideas were the “Westminster Bubble” (the idea promoted by a lazy media that only ideas that have taken hold in Westminster matter), and that the Westminster elite have a monopoly of political wisdom (expressed by contempt both for grassroots activists).  Neoliberalism had a starring role in the previous month’s Liberator when Mr Titley and David Boyle roped it into their narrative of what went wrong with British politics in their article “Really Facing the Future”.  Mr Titley felt he had written enough already on the subject to explain what he meant by neoliberalism – unfortunately before I have been subscribing to Liberator.

Another tiresome abstract noun has been even more prominent: “Capitalism”.  This has been the main target of Occupy.  It was recently brought into further focus by Tory MP Jesse Norman in an FT article based on his pamphlet “The Case for Real Capitalism“.  This pamphlet is not a particularly coherent or convincing piece of work, though to be fair he does say that a longer, and presumably better argued, version is in preparation.  But by harnessing a couple of qualifiers (“crony” and “good”) he tries to make sense of capitalism, and brings neoliberalism into the picture too.  It’s good place to start a probe into whether these words have any useful purpose.

In Mr Norman’s picture the world has been suffering from “crony capitalism”.  He identifies various strands (e.g. “narco-capitalism”, taking it well beyond what I would call “crony” capitalism, which should really involve cronyism – business leaders being too close to political leaders.  Still he does offer a workable definition of bad capitalism:

Crony capitalism is what happens when the constraints of law and markets and culture cease to be effective.  Entrepreneurship and value creation are replaced by rent-seeking, and certain groups become enormously wealthy without taking risk. These factors in turn lead to long-term economic underperformance, and sometimes to social unrest.

Apart from the use of “crony” and the economics jargon of “economic rent” (which means profits accruing to a business over and above the opportunity costs of inputs) this is quite useful.  Something that is recognisably capitalism – an economy based mainly on private enterprise – can look like this, and when it does, it is bad.  But capitalism doesn’t have to be this way – hence Mr Norman’s employment of “good capitalism”.  This version emphasises the need for free competition and the consistent application of the rule of law.  But that by itself is not enough.

Mr Norman contrasts “good capitalism” with our friend “neoliberalism”, which does not have a moral dimension.  Like Mr Titley, he does not bother to define neoliberalism.  But from context I can identify it with what the FT writer and economist John Kay called “the American Business Model” in his 2002 book The Truth about Markets which was part of my Christmas reading.  This elevates the simplifying assumptions of classical economics (rational behaviour, consistent and stable preferences, perfect competition, and so on) into a moral value system.  In particular it idealises a ruthless focus on maximising personal gain in the framework of impartially enforced rules (property rights in particular).  This way of thinking remains very popular in America, with the Chicago School giving it considerable intellectual heft.  But it has never taken off in Europe, and Britain is very much part of Europe on this issue, as in so much else.  The emphasis on personal gain – greed – and antipathy to social solidarity are too much for all but a lunatic fringe to accept.  And that includes Conservatives like Mr Norman.  Good capitalism has a moral dimension – and one that celebrates the virtues of hard work and social responsibility.

Meanwhile the use of “neoliberalism” on the British left (including Mr Titley) clearly does not conform to the definition that Mr Norman uses.  Within its scope are swept Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and the “Orange Book” Liberal Democrats such as Nick Clegg.  But none of these are or were Chicago School types.  Apart from Mrs Thatcher, maybe, all see a huge role for government in our society and would expand its remit.  But they have criticised the way producer interests have captured public services, profoundly undermining its quality.

Another issue needs to be mentioned here: and that is financial explosion in the UK and US that occurred in the period 1997-2007, and which ended so badly in the current crisis.  This is closely associated with greed in the public’s minds, of bankers mainly, but also chief executives and (whisper it) all those ordinary members of the public that racked up credit card and mortgage debt.  This is swept into the general idea of “capitalism” and “neoliberalism”.  And indeed neoliberal ideas were used to justify the behaviour of many of the more egregious participants.  But true believers in neoliberalism have little difficulty in shrugging such criticism off.  To them what caused the crisis was excessive government intervention (e.g. by encouraging subprime lending in the US)  and the failure to uphold proper open markets (through the implicit government guarantee of banking activities, for example).

All of which renders the words “capitalism” and “neoliberalism” as useless abstract nouns.  There is little consistency in their use between the different political factions; their use by one faction is misunderstood by the other in an endless cycle of talking at cross purposes.  The Occupy movement seems particularly bad at this.

To make headway in the political debate we need to move on from the abstract to the practical.  What is the best way of providing health and education services?  What should the scope be of social insurance?  How can we get private businesses to invest more in the future and distribute their profits (or economic rents if you prefer) more equitably?

 

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Taming the banks: two views from the FT

Oh the shame of the FT’s paywall!  Yesterday  the paper presented a wonderful view of the debate on the UK banking reforms proposed by the Vickers Commission with two opinion pieces under the title Taming the banks, long overdue or utter folly?  For the reforms was regular columnist John Kay.  Mr Kay (though I’m sure he’s not really a mere Mr) is one of my favourite FT columnists.   His articles do come out on his website in due course, but not this one yet, I’m afraid.  It is a very lucid article, pointing out the massive size of UK banks balance sheets: at £6 trillion, four times the size of the country’s income.  Of these but a tiny fraction is lending to industry, and a rather larger fraction is domestic lending such as mortgages.  The bulk of it is to the finance industry pumping up the great game of leverage.  The idea of ringfencing, the critical part of the proposed reforms, is to stop the small fraction of balance sheets that matters to individuals and “real” businesses from being poisoned by financial engineering gone wrong; or to put it another way, to stop the British state from having to underwrite the latter to protect the former.  Mr Kay’s only criticism is that the reforms are being implemented too slowly.

The opposing article is from Sir Martin Jacomb.  Sir Martin is no more a banker than Mr Kay, that is to say he’s done non-executive directorships but not much more; he’s a lawyer and chiefly famous for saying that universities should be independent of government, and that Oxford University should cut its ties with the state.  The bankers are in fact rather quiet on the reforms, after some rather clumsy lobbying to get the implementation delayed, which appears to have been quite successful.  The weakness of their case seems reinforced by Sir Martin’s article, which nearly nonsense.  Is this really the best the FT could find?

Sir Martin reiterates a familiar litany:

  • The reforms advocate breaking up “universal banks”, but this model “can be perfectly safe”.
  • It will hurt the City’s international position. “There must be universal bankers in Frankfurt rubbing their hands.”
  • It will cause the loss of jobs and taxes.
  • the new banks will not able to offer helpful products to industry.
  • It does not address the immediate problems besetting European banking,  “which result not from mistakes by bankers so much as blunders by European Union governments in the management of the euro.”

This lot is readily disposed of:

  • Universal banks did not come out the recent crisis well.  It is true that some of the better managed ones did not need direct government rescue (Barclays and HSBC in the UK, BNP Paribas, JP Morgan), though still benefited from implicit and explicit guarantees.  But far too many did, especially in America (notably Citigroup and Bank of America), here (Natwest and HBOS) and Switzerland (both UBS and SBC).
  • This is yet another cry of “Wolf!” from the City.  I remember how us not joining the Euro was supposed to kill the City in favour of Frankfurt.  The City’s standing is based on network effects of people, skills and time zones.  Most of its activity is from foreign owned institutions already.  If the UK owned activity shrinks, it is because the public liabilities that go with it are too large.  It best that we adapt.
  • This sort of answers the jobs and taxes bit.  As Mr Kay points out, lending to job-creating non-financial businesses should not be affected, and might even benefit if they do not have to compete for attention with gearing up of financial products.  It is much healthier if our economy is less dependent on highly paid bankers’ jobs.
  • Sir Martin uses the example of a currency hedging, which might be useful for an exporter with a long term contract.  But surely his ordinary banker can introduce him to an investment banker at little extra cost?
  • This is true; it’s a separate issue.  But is quite astonishing for him to suggest that the Euro area problems are the fault of politicians rather than bankers.  It was the bankers that bankrolled the Italian, Portuguese and Greek governments at absurdly cheap prices.  It was its banking industry that laid the Irish government low.  It was bankers from across the zone that pumped up the Spanish property bubble.   This kind of “it wasn’t us” defence from bankers simply shows how little they have learned from the disaster.

Apart this whingeing, Sir Martin makes a more subtle point.  We should be promoting more competent management amongst banks, and excessive regulation does the opposite.  Well, we must ask what caused the rampant incompetence in the most of the world’s banks before the crisis.  Surely it was the thought that if things went bad governments would come to the rescue, and it would all then be somebody else’s problem?  This is exactly what the reform seeks to address.  By separating the investment banking side out, it means that failure from that side will be easier to tolerate, and should not require the UK tax payer to stump up.  The retail side would be bailed out in the event of a failure, true, but it will be more difficult for these banks to pump themselves up to create a massive hole.  

There is an irony behind all this.  The point about banking reform is to make banking more, not less risky, for bankers anyway.  We need to see more bank failures, not less.  The by-line to Sir Martin’s article is perhaps its most cogent bit:  “Beware the paradox that a system to limit risk invariably increases it”.  But risk to whom?

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British banks shoot themselves in the foot.

Oh dear!  The Vickers review on banking reform hasn’t been published yet, and the news is full of people taking positions and what it might or might not recommend.  I have a lot of sympathy with our Prime Minister, who wants the blessed thing to be published before we have a row about it.  What to make of it?

The reporting is a bit confusing.  The Independent has hyped the thing up to be a war between the Vince Cable and George Osborne, not so much about the proposed reforms, but how quickly they will be implemented.  Meanwhile somebody has briefed the FT that Cable has pretty much given way on timing so there is no real row at all.

The proximate cause of this flurry is a lobbying campaign by the banks.  This campaign will do nothing to redress their general aura of incompetence.  They are basically saying the reforms should be kicked into the long grass because they will interfere with their lending to British businesses, which is critical if business investment is going pull us out of the economic doldrums, as most people hope.  There is some merit in this, because some of the reforms (on capital requirements and liquidity) could have just that effect.  But the ineptitude of their stance is staggering.

Politics is built on simple messages, and the banks are offering the Liberal Democrats a very tempting proposition.  This is a wonderful opportunity for them to show what they are doing in government by showing that they are resisting pressure from the banks.  As the banks themselves continue to insist on paying large bonuses for reckless trading activities, this is a popular stand.  Ed Miliband and Labour have not been slow to take up the anti-banker sentiment.  The Tories, meanwhile, don’t seem to know what’s hit them, and none of their side are sticking their necks out on the banks’ behalf.  Meanwhile John Cridland, the CBI director general, has weighed in on the banks’ behalf calling a rapid implementation of the reforms “barking mad”.  It is difficult to understand what he thought he was doing; the CBI’s credibility has been badly damaged as a result.

There may not even have been much of a row in the coalition in the first place.  There is consensus on the general thrust of the reforms; no doubt Vince Cable was quite flexible on the timings of some aspects, provided others proceed fairly quickly.  Now it is important to him and the Lib Dem part of the coalition that they are seen to get results.  A public row makes things worse for the banks.  If ever there was a time for quiet lobbying based on dry details, this was it.  Using the megaphone is totally counterproductive.

Not that I have much sympathy with the banks.  They are making too much money, and any sensible reform would reduce their profits, both by taking away the implicit government subsidy and by increasing competition.  It’s bound to hurt.  If the banks want to take some of their activities, and even their HQs, elsewhere, then so be it.  I’m not actually sure where they would go though.  Switzerland has dramatically increased its capital requirements for banks, and the stratospheric Swiss franc doesn’t make operating there cheap.  If they don’t have the implicit backing of a big government then their business model breaks down anyway – ruling out places like Ireland and Bermuda.  Going into the Eurozone when its own banking system is under incredible stress hardly looks a good idea either.  In America they have a habit of sending bankers to prison.

The central reform is to separate banks’ trading activities from their “ordinary” ones of taking deposits and lending to the public and non-financial businesses.  This was quite contentious in the commentariat when it was first mooted a year or so ago.  But there seems to be a much greater consensus behind it now.  Who would have guessed it?  A lot of people assumed the bankers would get away with it while politicians tried to make up their minds, and the disaster of 2007/08 faded into the memory.  Not so.  The banks’ inept PR machinery can take some of the credit.

 

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Who is to blame for the UK’s economic mess?

As time passes it is clear that the UK’s economic crisis is amongst the worst of the major developed economies, though Japan may beat it on some measures.  It’s not in the league of some smaller economies, like Ireland or Greece, although a comparison with Portugal may be more nuanced.  Some people (notably Labour politicians) struggle to accept just how bad things are; others don’t get much beyond railing deficits and the National Debt.  It’s worth pausing to consider what went wrong, and to try and attribute responsibility.

What happened?  Until 2007, the UK had an astonishingly consistent record of economic growth.  This started with the departure from the European Exchange Rate Mechanism under John Major in 1992, and continued until early 2008.  Economists had taken an average annual growth rate of 2.5% for granted.  Unemployment fell, and most people felt better off, though the very wealthy did much better than the rest.  Public expenditure rocketed, with massive investment in the NHS in particular.  A recent study by the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) shows that poverty was reduced, largely because of increased benefits and tax credits.

And then bang!  GDP shrank by 6% in a year, stayed flat for the year after that, before struggling to a bit under 2% growth in the year after that (taking the year to the 1st quarter from the ONS).  Forecasts are for consistently anaemic growth. This is striking.  When economies hit a recession due to a temporary shock, they bounce back quite sharply, as temporarily unused capacity comes back on stream; this is what has happened in Germany this time.  Not for us; a good 7% of the economy has vanished never to return.  What makes this particularly bad is that this 7% produced an awful lot of taxes, while public expenditure carried on regardless (with benefits increasing due to the extra unemployment and hardship).  This has left the country with a “structural deficit” of about 8%.  This is the excess of public expenditure over taxes after you strip out temporary factors; the actual deficit was much larger (it reached 11% and has now dropped to 10% per annum).  Now I’m not sure how we ended up with an 8% structural deficit after losing just 7% of GDP, of which presumably no more than half would will have been taxed.  The government was already running a bit of a deficit when disaster struck; I think that capital taxes must account for the difference, now that the property boom has disappeared.

What this comes down to is that a lot of the pre-crisis growth was not for real, and government finances were built on unsustainable foundations.  What was happening?  This phantom growth seems to have been related to a boom in personal borrowing to finance property purchases and good old fashioned consumption.  Symptoms included an over-sized finance industry (in earnings if not jobs) and unsustainable levels of consumption.

Who was to blame?  The three commonly cited answers are everybody-and-nobody/events-beyond-our-control, bankers, or the Labour Government.  Some Labour politicians still seem to subscribe to the first idea.  It was an international storm (I never want to hear the phrase “perfect storm” again) and we were caught in it; nobody was seriously criticising government policy before the crisis.  As the economy has failed to bounce back, this has become unsustainable; why are we having so much difficulty when other countries caught by the crisis are having an easier time?  Of course some try to say this is because of Coalition policies over the last year.  But almost all of the many critics of the Coalition policies accept that we were in a terrible mess in the first place.

So the critics shift to another target: Britain’s bankers.  These are an easy target, paying themselves handsomely while their organisations required government bailouts.  There is also a widespread conception that the bailouts cost a lot of money, and that this is one of the reasons that government debt is a problem.  Actually the government has largely got away with it, for which Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling deserve some credit (contrast the terrible hash that the Irish government has made).  A lot of government money was put at risk, yes, but the banks were charged for it, and the money lent will largely be repaid, and the guarantees not called on.  Where the bankers were culpable was in rampant lending, supporting excessive consumption and a property bubble.  But the lending was nothing like as reckless as in the US (or Ireland for that matter).  If the government had awakened to the idea that consumer lending needed restraint, something could have been done.  Let me be clear; the banks were reckless; we need to regulate them much better – but they were not the fundamental cause of the crisis.  We had a narrow escape.

Could the government have seen the vulnerability of the British economy?  There were not many prominent critics at the time, though Vince Cable was clear enough, for exactly the right reasons.  But it was a matter of undergraduate economics to see that economic policy was on an unsustainable path.  Literally.  As a second year economics undergraduate at UCL in early 2007 my macroeconomics lecturer, Professor Wendy Carlin, used the UK economy as a case study to illustrate her model for an open economy.  It was also used as an exam question.  Was the UK’s strong economic performance due to increasing economic efficiency or excess aggregate demand, she asked.  It was clearly the latter: the giveaways being the appreciating real exchange rate, and a large current account deficit (the economy as a whole consuming more than it was spending).

What should the government have done?  The first thing should have been to raise interest rates and tighten monetary policy much earlier.  Unfortunately this was genuinely difficult, because this was the Bank of England’s main target was inflation, and not the general standing of the monetary system. And the inflation rate seemed benign (thanks in large part to the overvalued pound).  The second thing would have been to regulate the banks harder, to restrain lending.  This was the FSA’s job, although the degree of independence of this agency is less strong.  Finally the government could have tightened fiscal policy to reduce the level of demand in the economy, through expenditure cuts or tax increases.  Nominally the government’s policy was to run a zero structural deficit, but it chose to fiddle with the statistics on the economic cycle so as to argue that it did not have to do anything.  The government was not egregiously profligate, as Coalition politicians like to suggest, but it was pushing the wrong way.

What comes over, above all, is a failure of leadership, especially from Gordon Brown, as a formidably powerful Chancellor of the Exchequer.  The tripartite arrangement for managing the financial system (between Treasury, Bank of England, and FSA) did not help, but it is very clear that if in doubt it was the Treasury’s job to lead.  They didn’t.  They could have leant on the FSA and Bank of England, as well as tightening fiscal policy directly.  But Mr Brown either refused to recognise the gravity of the situation, or his political courage failed him.  Given his constant level of denial about the seriousness of the crisis, I suspect it was mainly the former.  He could not face admitting that so much of economic achievement was unsustainable.  It is invidious to blame one man, when the hands of many were involved.  But Gordon Brown had the authority; there was enough evidence for him to act on; and he made things worse not better.  A career in the Treasury that had started so brilliantly ended catastrophically.

My next topic on the economy: is the Coalition economic policy making matters worse or better?

 

 

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Upside down economic thinking

Couldn’t resist commenting on this story in yesterday’s FT.  This behind the paywall, but this summary from City AM is a good start:

PACE OF UK GROWTH UNDER THREAT
Britain’s economy is unlikely to grow as fast as before the financial crisis because its most productive sectors have been hardest hit, jeopardising government plans to cut the deficit. A Financial Times analysis of the sectorial performance of the economy before and after the crash highlights how much banks and insurance companies boosted economic growth between 2000 and 2008.

What it says is that the finance industry contributed a lot to measured GDP up to the crisis, but not to jobs.  In that sense the finance industry is said the be “productive”.  But these industries bore the brunt of the crash. The article also says that this is one of the main reasons why unemployment did not rise as much as the fall in GDP suggested.   Because finance is unlikely to recover fast, since the burden of accumulated (private sector) debt still has to be worked off, then we can’t expect to repeat the pre-crash growth rates.  Bad news.

This is the kind of thinking that takes hold when you accept GDP as the ultimate arbiter of progress.  Let’s look at in another way.  A lot of the growth prior to the crash was down to financial services which created few jobs and which was based on expanding indebtedness, not supplying services that people actually wanted or needed.  It was illusory, in other words.  Highly productive is hardly the right description.

In one sense the article is right.  The finance industry contributed a lot of taxes, whose disappearance is one of the causes of our massive structural deficit.  We can’t hope for illusory growth to rescue our tattered public finances, so it could be a long grind.

This type of upside down thinking is one of the reasons why we need to supplement GDP with other measures that aren’t so affected by such illusory “production”.  Cue the forthcoming Lib Dem policy paper on Quality of Life to be published later this year (which yours truly is helping to write…).

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Vickers Commission: so far, so good

I have deliberately paused before commenting on the interim report of the Vickers Commission on UK banking reform.  I wanted to read more about it; it didn’t help that the post office delivered my Economist several days late.  Unfortunately I still have not had time to read the report itself; let me come clean on that.  Most of the commentary seems to be that the banks have largely got away with it, and are heaving a sign of relief.  My answer is “not necessarily”.  It may be clever politics not to go for the more totemic ideas, like a full split between retail and investment banking, since that clears the path for the reforms that really matter.

The report primarily concerns itself with two things: preventing a future UK government being forced into bailing out or underwriting banks, and increasing competition between the banks.  The latter was behind one of the more controversial recommendations: the breakup of Lloyds Bank.  But I don’t think that’s the main battle.  I despair about the lack of competition in UK retail banking, but I don’t see that the costs to the economy are that large.  The main game is preventing the next bailout.

The suggested strategy makes plenty of sense.  Ring-fence retail banks, force them to hold more capital, and leave investment banks to their own devices.  The significance of the second part of that proposition needs to sink in (as this article from John Gapper in the FT (£) makes plain).  An investment bank may be “too big to fail” in global terms, but the UK government will say is that this is somebody else’s problem, so long as our retail banks are protected.  This is an entirely realistic admission that the UK government is now just a bit part part player in the world of global banking.  If one our big investment banks fails, then we don’t mind if it is bought up by foreigners.  This is a striking contrast to the approach taken by the Swiss government.

But it leads to an obvious issue.  How do you prevent a meltdown in investment banking infecting the supposedly ring-fenced retail banks?  The collapse of Lehman’s in 2008 caused such chaos not because it was so big and important in its own right, but that it was too entangled with banks that had big retail deposit bases.  A retail bank will gather in lots of retail deposits; the question is where does all this money go?  If the bank is to make money it needs to get lent out.  If this lending gets into fancy investment banking products, then the ring-fencing has failed.  There must be some pretty heavy restrictions; the assets don’t need to be absolutely safe, but we want to insulate these banks from the complexities of the investment banking melee.  This will not be easy, as John Kay points out (in another FT paywall article, I’m afraid); all that is needed is an oversized treasury department, which is supposedly there just to oil the wheels of the machine.  Mr Kay knows this from bitter experience; he saw (as a non-exec director in the earlier days) how a runaway treasury department at the former building society The Halifax took that institution down a route that led first to demutualisation and eventually its own destruction; each step presented as innovative and sensible.  The detail must be subject to intense scrutiny.

But what of those excessive bankers’ bonuses and all the outrage that goes with them?  To the extent that this is a retail banking problem, the Vickers reform surely deals with it adequately.  The only way of tacking with it properly is to turn these banks into less profitable, lower risk utility organisations which can’t afford to pay big bonuses.  That is what ring-fencing and higher capital requirements should achieve.

But the bigger problem is investment banking.  This is an international issue, and Vickers is really about damage limitation.  As I have said before, the answer is not directly regulating remuneration, but cutting the profits.  This industry must be made much smaller and less profitable.  The two most important ways are through increased capital requirements and choking off its finance (or “leverage” as they like to call it).  The Basel committee is already making headway on the first.  Retail ring-fencing, if it is done properly, will help a lot with the latter.

Banking reform is a long hard road.  There is a danger that we have “wasted a good crisis”, and the passing of the crisis’s worst peak means that the pressure on politicians to deliver has eased.  But the crisis has not passed, though many financial types waving graphs seem to disagree.  A lot of banks are still in a shaky condition – and so are many governments’ finances, including those of the USA and UK.  There may well be a steady stream of aftershocks to remind our leaders that the journey is not over.  So far the Vickers Commission is playing its part.

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