Turner is right to take on swollen banks

August 27, 2009

So the watchdog can bark after all. Adair Turner, chairman of Britain’s Financial Services Authority, says the financial sector has “swollen beyond its socially useful size”. That is a striking statement for any financial regulator, particularly one that counts promoting London’s financial centre as one of its goals. Identifying the problem, however, is the easy bit. Reversing decades of financial expansion will require global agreement on tough new rules, and the determination to make sure they are consistently enforced.

Turner’s comments, in a debate hosted by Prospect magazine, underscore the extent to which the crisis has upended the received wisdom among policymakers. For years they assumed markets were self-correcting, that financial innovation brought lasting economic benefits, and that regulators should think twice before getting in the way.

But after two years of global economic turmoil and with several trillion dollars of public money committed to preventing further panic, the costs of this approach have become all too clear.

What is less certain is what should come in its place. A market economy needs functioning banks and financial markets to intermediate capital flows and allocate credit. This useful activity will involve some useless speculation: it is hard to imagine a regulator — or anyone else — reliably drawing a line between the two.

The authorities can, however, make sure that banks take greater account of the possible costs of their risk-taking. Turner thinks forcing banks, particularly those involved in trading activities, to hold greater reserves of capital will choke off some “socially useless” activity. Such changes are already under way. They will have the added benefit of reducing banks’ profits and — by implication — the outsized bonuses they distribute to employees.

Governments can also do more to protect taxpayers from future financial failures. Banks could be required to prepare for their own failure by drawing up what Mervyn King, governor of the Bank of England, memorably described as a “living will”. Alternatively, systemically important institutions could be charged an explicit fee for the state guarantee they enjoy.

Turner also floats the idea of introducing a Tobin tax — a levy on financial transactions — named after the economist who in the 1970s proposed taxing cross-border currency transactions. However, this would not distinguish between “useful” and “useless” transactions. It is also hard to imagine a global tax that could not be avoided somehow.

Turner is right to launch a debate. His comments will also help counter accusations that financial regulators have been captured by the industry they are supposed to police. But the reforms he has proposed cannot be imposed unilaterally by any one country — let alone by a regulator that may not exist in its current form a year from now. Shrinking the financial sector will require a global agreement every bit as robust as the intellectual consensus that allowed it to swell up in the first place.


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