It’s all over: The banks have won

September 21, 2009

Laurence Copeland- Laurence Copeland is a professor of finance at Cardiff University Business School and a co-author of “Verdict on the Crash” published by the Institute of Economic Affairs. The opinions expressed are his own. -

There is so much talk of a new regulatory framework for the financial sector, anyone would think it was an important issue.

Unfortunately, it is almost irrelevant, for the simple reason that, however sophisticated the new regime, experience shows it will be bypassed and/or captured by banks of one kind or another, possibly by novel types of institution invented specially for the purpose.

This is true even in the unlikely event that the whole world – with the possible exception of North Korea – embraces the new regulations and enforces them with vigour.

The only type of intervention which has a hope in hell of success is one based on size. As Mervyn King has said, when a bank is TBTF (Too Big To Fail), it is just too big.

What is needed is breakup along functional (and, where necessary, geographic) lines, separating the boring but essential utility business of deposit-taking and payment-transfer from the exciting risk-taking of investment banking. A once-and-for-all breakup would have to be followed by continual monitoring, to ensure that takeovers and mergers did not breach the size limit and take us back to the TBTF dilemma.

The aim should be straightforward. If banks were cut down to manageable size, the taxpayer’s liability could be limited to deposit insurance alone. Banks could be allowed to fail in the same way as firms in other industries and would no longer be able to hold Governments or central banks to ransom, as they have repeatedly done in the last twenty or thirty years.

Moreover, break-ups would bring other benefits. Without an implicit taxpayer guarantee, there would be more incentive for institutional shareholders to insist on responsible management behaviour and to impose remuneration packages consistent with it. This mechanism of shareholder vigilance, which failed totally in the run-up to the current crisis, in my view offers the best hope for the long term. By their shameful passivity, institutional shareholders must carry a major share of the responsibility for the existing mess, and everything should be done to shame them into activism in future.

Will breaking up the banks eliminate systemic risk altogether? Of course not. But it will mean that the world economy will no longer be hostage to the irresponsible behaviour of a handful of bankers consciously pushing the banking system to the limit, or, as has recently been confirmed in accounts of the demise of Lehman Brothers, indulging in brinkmanship with the authorities.

The difficulty is how to get from here to there. As I said in an earlier blog, we need governments too big to be captured, and it is now plain that they exist neither in Washington nor in London. Predictably, the UK Government has shown no stomach whatever for the fight, even though it effectively owns two of the country‘s largest banks. It is a catastrophic error – one is reminded of the first Gulf War, when, with Saddam Hussein at their mercy, the Allies fell back on technicalities to justify leaving him in power.

It would be ridiculous to compare the evil of tyranny with the excesses of bankers, but in pure monetary terms the current crisis has already cost several times as much as the two Gulf Wars added together. Yet not only are Western Governments running away from confronting the banks, they appear determined to take on almost anyone else involved in finance. In particular, the EU’s hostility to so-called Alternative Investments (hedge funds and private equity) is, if anything, likely to make institutional investors as a whole even more reluctant to intervene than they were before.

As ever, it seems there is no situation so bad that our endlessly creative politicians cannot make it worse.

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