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Tuesday, 3 March 2015

A plea for splitting up the too big too fail banks.

Last Sunday I watched my favourite TV documentary (Tegenlicht, VPRO) which had an interview with Dutch author Joris Luyendijk about bankers and the financial crisis. Two years ago Joris Luyendijk went to London to work for The Guardian and to write about The City, the financial heart of the UK. Recently, he published a book called "Dit kan niet waar zijn. Onder bankiers." which would translate like "This can't be true. Amongst bankers."

The interview with Joris Luyendijk left me with mixed feelings. He feels that the banking crisis will repeat itself as the heart of the problem was not in the people but in the banking system itself. That system nurtures amoral and greedy persons. His analysis was sound but he did not offer a solution.

In my youth (60s-70s) banks used to be like plain, simple and boring utility companies (e.g., gas, light, water). Basically they accepted short-term savings deposits and used that money to offer long-term mortgage financing or working capital financing. The difference between interest paid and interest charged ("spread") was used to pay their overhead (e.g., salaries). The banking risks were rather limited to credit (write-offs), interest (mismatch in time) and liquidity (bank runs) risks. Salaries were rather low as banks were not very popular employers back then. In essence: low risk, low reward (profits, salaries).

The core function of banks (i.e., savings and loans) has not changed. Size and complexity did change. And subsequently regulation. In my view, the popular shareholder value discussions of the 80s are the root of the current situation. Banks transformed from utility like companies into commercial companies. Globalisation of the largest banking clients made banks copying this behaviour ("follow your client"). Many smaller banks were taken over by the larger ones. The resulting hike in overhead required more - and more profitable - products. In essence: high risk, high reward (profits, salaries).

Due to the immense banking dimensions and its enormous organisational complexity, only few persons - even in banking - saw what was shaping. When the music stopped playing, banks, banking supervisors and governments were all caught by surprise. Governments had to prevent the financial system from a collapse as banks had become "too big too fail". As some bankers would say: profits are privatised and losses are socialised.

Banks use their "low risk, low reward" core public utility function to blackmail governments into a bailout once their "high risk, high reward" other activities have caused a near melt down. This phenomenon is also referred to as "moral hazard". Wikipedia: in economics, moral hazard occurs when one person takes more risks because someone else bears the burden of those risks.

There is a solution against "too big too fail": implementing a law like the US Glass-Steagall Act of 1933. The Glass-Steagall Act, also known as the Banking Act of 1933, was passed by US Congress in 1933 and prohibits commercial banks from engaging in the investment business. It was enacted as an emergency response to the failure of nearly 5,000 banks during the Great Depression. (NY Times). Once their core public utility function is taken away from them, investment banks would be mere trading houses and would no longer be banks that require a bailout at the expense of tax payers.

Implementing a law like the Glass-Steagall Act would also solve several other discussions like the required capital buffers of a bank and the ongoing discussions about bankers' remuneration.

As Nike would say in its commercials: Just Do It.