The Great Debate UK
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.
In the wake of the widespread chaos that accompanied the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers last September, regulators have sought to find a better way to unwind global financial giants. One approach is that the banks themselves should prepare for their own orderly demise -- a kind of "living will".
That idea has been gathering steam of late. The G20 group of finance ministers and central bankers meeting in London over the weekend agreed to require "systemic firms to develop firm-specific contingency plans."