Shock! Banker says banks must shrink

July 30, 2009

One of the most depressing, though predictable, aspects of the financial crisis has been the reluctance of senior bankers to publicly debate the industry’s shortcomings.

Though there has been plenty of finger-pointing in private, bankers have refrained from discussing their own – and each other’s – failures in public. The result is that the debate about the future of banking has been almost entirely conducted by non-bankers.

Bert Heemskerk is an exception. Until a month ago, the 66-year old Dutchman was chairman of Rabobank, the Dutch co-operative lender. Since announcing his retirement, he has embarked on a public crusade for banking to rediscover its traditional roots. He has given lectures and interviews, and published a book with his analysis of what went wrong, and what should be done about it. It’s only available in Dutch, but the title – which translates as “A Healthy Shrinkage” – gives some idea of where he’s coming from.

I interviewed Heemskerk shortly before he retired, and found his views refreshingly blunt. (My write-up of the interview was published today by the Financial Times). Little of what he says that hasn’t already been said by regulators, academics and politicians. But it is still unusual to hear it from a senior banker. His perspective is also a welcome alternative to the measured, but self-serving, arguments against radical reform served up by the likes of Deutsche Bank’s Josef Ackermann.

Heemskerk cannot be easily dismissed. In his 40-year career he rose to the upper ranks of Amro bank, became the first non-family member to run Van Lanschot, the Dutch brokerage firm, and helped steer Rabobank through the crisis virtually unscathed. While other Dutch banks were nationalized or forced to seek state support, Rabobank increased its profits. It is now the only large private bank that still has a AAA credit rating.

Of course, one can pick holes in Heemskerk’s arguments. Rabobank is owned by its customers, so it is not entirely surprising that he blames the cult of shareholder value for much of what went wrong. He is also far from clear on how his proposed changes to a more utility-like banking system would be implemented, or how to ease what is likely to be a painful economic transition.

Nevertheless, Heemskerk is a serious banker who has published a serious critique of his industry. For that reason alone, his views deserve to be widely aired.

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