Opinion

The Great Debate

Where does Britain stand in the global economic race?

Following the international financial crisis of the late 2000s, the world’s financial leaders have been working towards a standardized banking system that will strengthen banks at an individual level, and thus improve the banking sector’s ability to survive stress when it occurs.

In 2010 the Basel Committee produced a third accord outlining a set of regulations, with the goal of solving the banking system’s ongoing problems. Since then the conversation has yet to cease over whether enough has been done, since the peak of the crisis in 2008, to ensure a stable financial environment that supports growth on an international scale.

The importance of Basel III lies not only on an inter-continental scale, but for individual countries to maintain the required standard regulations to a point of sustainability. In Europe, the debate over the role Britain will play in Basel III has yet to be resolved. During early Basel III discussions in May 2012, Michel Barnier, the French European commissioner for financial regulation, clashed with British Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne over the suggestion of higher leverage ratios in the UK, stating that a distortion of competition within the EU had the potential to cause a continental disadvantage.

In recent times the political context surrounding Basel III has not dwindled. In the Autumn Statement released on December 5 2013, Osborne revealed that “Britain is currently growing faster than any other major advanced economy.” As it stands Britain’s rate of recovery, in comparison to that of other EU members and the U.S., puts the country at risk of greater pressure to conform to the standardized regulations proposed in the Basel III accord. For Britain there is a better hope of financial prosperity and continued development in strengthening relations with China. Prime Minister David Cameron cemented that this is indeed the case during his December meetings in China, a country whose own role within Basel III is similarly undetermined. The chancellor noted:

“The Prime Minister’s visit to China this week is the latest step in this government’s determined plan to increase British exports to the faster growing emerging markets — something our country should have done many years ago.”

The dark side of bank dividends

In April, U.S. banks dusted off the dividend again, a trick they’d mostly abandoned during the financial crisis. JPMorgan Chase plans an 8-cent-per-share hike. Wells Fargo’s will be 5 cents. Same for Morgan Stanley. Bank of America will raise its dividend a penny. Some might celebrate the move: The banks are back! But there’s more to it. In this fairly anemic economy, dividends are yet another strategic, if counterintuitive, hedge that won’t get our loved and loathed financial institutions lending again anytime soon.

Although good news for shareholders, the payouts don’t mask the reality that banks are still unstable. Executives are scared of looming regulatory schemes, such as the Brown-Vitter bill in the Senate, that could raise equity requirements to cushion the excessive debt of borrowing-prone banks. While earnings are up, balance sheets are deceptive. The big banks still rely heavily on income from the stock market, which overall has been stronger, and take in about $83 billion in subsidies. Their equity and cash reserves are a tiny fraction of their debt.

The banking sector certainly seemed more robust in the first quarter. Take JPMorgan Chase. It was solid enough to purchase $2.6 billion in stocks and $6 billion in buybacks, but its $25.12 billion in revenue was weaker than expected. The bank crowed that is the nation’s No. 1 Small Business Association lender, with a 10 percent increase from the same period last year. But commercial loan growth overall slowed to 1.2 percent in the first quarter compared with 3.6 percent in the first quarter, while consumer loans declined 4.2 percent from the same quarter a year earlier. Mortgage revenue was down 31 percent. According to one estimate, the bank’s $440 million annual subsidy paid 40 percent of its last dividend, which was about $1.1 billion.

A blueprint to make banks behave

Banking integrity has become an oxymoron. Top bankers need to change this and take responsibility for tackling ethical issues. For this to happen, every part of the organization – from senior management to human resources managers to those on the trading floor and beyond – should be assessed according to the contribution it makes to promoting ethical values, not just the bottom line.

The investigations into the LIBOR rate-rigging scandal showed how commonplace bribery among dealers had become. For example, between September 2008 and August 2009 a single trader at the Royal Bank of Scotland had made corrupt payments to interbank brokers on 30 occasions, by means of risk-free transactions known as “wash trades.”

While the likes of Barclays and RBS have acknowledged wrongdoings and vowed to change course, it’s no longer enough to mollify critics with soothing words, apologies and empty gestures.

Too failed to live not too big to fail

James Saft Great Debate – James Saft is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own –

The U.S. policy of keeping zombie financial institutions alive is so clearly failing that it is now attracting attack from inside policymakers’ circle of covered wagons.

The most interesting intervention in the banking debate in the past few weeks was an extraordinary attack by Kansas City Federal Reserve President Thomas Hoenig on what he termed a policy of “piecemeal” nationalization which leaves discredited management in place, repels new capital from the banking system and allows bad assets to fester rather than be cleared.

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