Tag Archives: Vickers Commission

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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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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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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