Tuesday, July 03, 2012

Time for remorse

Bob Diamond is a figure who it is hard to love. 

Ever since he made the comment that the "time for Banker's remorse was over", he left a huge hostage to fortune, in the event of anything going wrong at Barclays.

As we now know, something has gone wrong, and in the event, Mr. Diamond's bullishness has become his downfall- the time for remorse is now is the almost inevitable headline in most newspapers.

Yet, although Bob Diamond may not be the most sympathetic creature, the reality is that - as his own resignation shows- he has not been in control of events.

The fact is that the huge banking conglomerates carry within them the seeds of their own destruction. The interconnected nature of the global financial markets has created vast black boxes within the various banks, where few- if any- can understand, let alone control, the risks.

The resulting lack of transparency has allowed financial malpractice and even criminality to flourish unchecked. All the Basel III and other regulations have done has been to increase the insurance premium for a bank failure, without actually tackling a) the financial crimes of the past years and b) improving the efficiency and honesty of the international banking system. Instead of creating greater competition, the governments and regulators have responded to the crisis by forced mergers and shot gun marriages: not only concentrating bank ownership- in many cases into the hands of the hapless tax payer- but also concentrating credit risk, market risk and indeed the risk of fraud, into ever larger institutions.

Now, the LIBOR rate fixing scandal clearly proves large scale collusion of virtually the entire banking system in criminal activity. It is inevitable that inquiries and investigations will find further issues- and the cleaning of the stables will take many years. Unfortunately this will also mean that the repair of the banking system will also take years- and that in turn is likely to mean that credit conditions - at least in the West- will remain tight and growth flat to negative for many years too.

Yet even this necessary catharsis will probably not solve the crisis: that can only come from a large increase in competition and far more transparent market conditions. The regulators should be considering how to break up the financial conglomerates into different, separate businesses.

After the Great Depression, Investment banking was separated from deposit taking. One of the major causes of the crisis has been that investment banks gained control over deposit bases and then used them for both highly leveraged and highly speculative activities. It is clearly time to restore the status-quo-ante and ensure that simple market intermediation can not ever again become position taking businesses based on depositors money.

The fall of Bob Diamond is a satisfying story of hubristic arrogance facing a humiliating nemesis- and sure, I too let out a little cheer at the fall of a seeming villain. However with the sole exception of Vince Cable, there are few who have actually "got" what the problems in the financial markets really are- and certainly the Chancellor and the Prime Minister, with their coterie of hedge fund friends, still seem lost in the face of the repeated hammer blows to the system.

It is not enough for Mr Osborne to announce inquiries, parliamentary, judicial or otherwise: these are, in the approved manner of Sir Humphrey, simply substitutes for real activity. The time has come to draw up a green paper and then a white paper for the wholesale restructuring of the banking system to be carried out by legislation before the next election in 2015.

It is not a time for inquiring what we should be remorseful about: it is a time for legislative preparation in order to avoid some remorseful day that may come again for us in the future. 

It is a time for action, not emotion. Action this day.

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