The Financial Times greets Obama’s promise to restore something akin to Glass-Steagall with the worst, most congenitally spineless and brainless editorial (you may need a subscription to read this drivel…) that I can remember on its pink pages.
It starts with a tabloid headline – ‘Obama in declaration of war on Wall Street’ – and goes quickly downhill. The first four words of the first sentence are ‘Markets nosedived on Thursday…’ This refers to falls of 1.9% in the S&P 500 and 1.6% in the FTSE 100. They didn’t write ‘spiralled out of control’ when the same markets went up by not much less a couple of days before.
But it is the non-attempt to critique what Obama is saying that riles. The president should not try, the paper says, to prevent deposit-taking banks from trading on their own account because: ‘Boundaries between bank functions will be hard to draw.’ It is that old chestnut of the gormless right: this sounds new and unusual and a little bit difficult, so let’s do nothing.
Instead, The FT recommends an immediate return to the failed approach of the past 40 years: ‘The government’s key policy lever should be to make sure that institutions hold enough capital to reflect the risks that they run and the threats that they pose to the rest of the financial system.’ There have been endless efforts to regulate banks through their capital rather than their structures and they have failed for a very simple reason. It is that you cannot make rules about capital adequacy that are valid through the economic cycle.
In other words, the amount of capital that it is appropriate for a bank to hold when no one wants to invest (like now) is completely different to the amount of capital a bank should be made to hold when the world thinks that property prices will never fall again (a la pre-crisis). This is why economists refer to banks as pro-cyclical: they make economic cycles worse by mirroring the greed and fear of society at large.
Management by capital alone could only be effective if it was run by some kind of omnisicient, globally-empowered committee. This would tell the banking industry how much capital it should have at different points in the economic cycle. Banks would be instructed by the world’s cleverest men and women when to calm down and when to lend against their will.
Think about this for a moment. You will now have realised that the proposal is completely impracticable. There could never be a Pareto-efficient agreement about who should be on this committee any more than there is about who should be on the UN Security Council. And such a system almost certainly would not work anyway, because the chances of finding omniscient people are extremely small.
So you do what works. That means separating the utility and speculative functions of financial institutions in a way similar to what was done by the 1933 Glass-Steagall Act. People who want to play with the savings of the ordinary, conservative public must run one kind of bank, whose activities are narrowly circumscribed; people who want to leverage up 30 or 40 times must operate a different kind of financial business in which the capital at risk really will be lost when things go pear-shaped.
Why is this so difficult to agree on? The FT completely fails to point out that Paul Volcker, who has been brought in to consult on the reforms, is a highly orthodox former federal reserve governor who was reappointed to that position by Ronald Reagan. He is not some kind of hippy. What Volcker has, and what Obama’s current economics and fed team palpably lacks, is the intellectual reach and self-confidence to figure out and push through simple, effective changes which the US establishment will not like.
Here, in The New York Times, is someone else who is not a hippy writing sensibly about bank regulation.
The Economist is hurt by its Thursday publication day, having produced a two-page briefing on bank regulation prior to Obama’s ‘Glass-Steagall’ remarks. A reaction to the latest news is posted to The Economist site.