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.