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Why banks should welcome “living wills”

A year after Lehman Brothers collapsed, policymakers are still getting to grips with the key question raised by the Wall Street firm’s fall: how to ensure that the failure of a large bank does not jeopardise the entire financial system.

After much debate, politicians and central bankers are warming to the idea that banks should make preparations for their own failure. This plan — memorably dubbed a “living will” by Mervyn King, governor of the Bank of England — would allow regulators to wind down even large, cross-border institutions without putting public money at risk.

Alistair Darling, Britain’s chancellor, wants to introduce legislation this autumn to force banks to draw up living wills. Such plans have drawn predictable squeals from bank executives, who claim the idea is hard to implement for large cross-border groups. They have a point. Nevertheless, bankers should embrace the idea, for the simple reason that it is better than any of the alternatives.

The status quo is no longer acceptable, so policymakers have three choices for dealing with large, systemically important financial institutions. The first is to make them smaller so that the collapse of any one bank would no longer threaten the system. The second option is to take a “zero failure” approach to regulation, along the lines of safety rules in the airline industry.

Defining financial stability

By my count, the British government’s new paper setting out its plans for overhauling the banking industry mentions the words “financial stability” 141 times in its 147 pages. So it comes as some surprise that the document makes no attempt to define the phrase.

The paper talks at length about restoring, maintaining and protecting financial stability. Its main proposal is to create a Council for Financial Stability, to be chaired by the Chancellor. Meanwhile the Financial Services Authority is to be given explicit responsibility for maintaining the stability of the financial system rather than just regulating individual banks.

from Margaret Doyle:

COLUMN –One cheer for Darling’s reform: Margaret Doyle

Margaret Doyle is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are her own

By Margaret Doyle

LONDON, July 8 (Reuters) – Alastair Darling has ignored the first rule of holes: if you’re in one, stop digging. He could have produced a few motherhood-and-apple pie reforms of the banking system, to give the impression of activity. Instead, he has dug in, proposing an upgrade of Britain’s failed “tripartite” system of regulation.

No one expected him to admit as much, but the arrangement that split responsibility between the Treasury, the Bank of England and the Financial Services Authority (FSA), was doomed from the start.

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