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Monday, 2 July 2012

Reshaping the Banks

The Vickers Commission on the UK banking business has already proposed that the banks' 'retail' and other activities should clearly be separated; and the government has promised to enact that policy. This would in itself have made the future banks very different from those of the recent past; and now more change is in the air. New scandals have emerged very recently - the manipulation of libor and the reckless mis-selling to small firms of inappropriate [and  ineffectual] 'protection' against interest-rate changes - to add to the existing flow of compensation funds to individuals who were mis-sold payment protection insurance by their banks. International financial institutions, a swathe of small and medium-sized businesses and individuals have all been cheated by the London banks.

For several decades successive governments have complacently observed the increase of trade in the finance sector of the economy, and have taken more than ten per cent of the nation's taxes from the sector. This was seen as largely compensating the country for the destruction of material industry. That progress is now likely to be slammed into reverse by the restructuring of banking firms, by new UK and EU regulation, and by international traders moving activity away from the discredited London Market. Thus the situation is nothing less than a disaster for the British economy and for the sixty million human beings who depend upon it

The principal asset of any financial firm is its reputation for integrity in its employees' intentions and its efficiency in administration. Despite the impact of the credit crunch, London has been seen as a reliable market until very recently. Before the start of the millennium the London Market was dramatically changed from the gentlemanly world that existed until the early nineteen eighties when the Thatcher government initiated the 'big bang' which created the environment in which huge conglomerates were created which undertook almost the full range of financial services [insurance was the great exception] and developed massive markets in a great variety of new 'products'.

The traditional business of banking was to receive deposits from customers who want their money to be in safe custody until they have a use for the spending-power, to hold reserves proportionate to the deposits so that customers can always access their funds when they want them, and to lend the rest of the money they have to firms and to people who have viable economic uses for it [investment, house purchase, trade finance etc]. Alongside basic banking by 1850 there had emerged a small cohort of 'merchant banks' that managed international transactions and currency exchanges and advised firms on aspects of business development, including decisions whether to sell shares or bonds to increase their capital,  and when and how to try to take over other firms. Alongside the banks and merchant banks were specialist trades of stock-broking and stock-jobbing, discounting government securities and other niche markets: each of which was self-regulating under the oversight of the Bank of England. After the big bang these activities were brought together in new conglomerates, many of which formed as - or were absorbed by - international conglomerates; and their turnover increased massively. However, the emergence of the 'new' economies of Asia and Latin America meant that in the new millennium London's share of global banking trade and of profits quickly declined, from more than ten per cent in 2000 to less than five per cent in 2011. Many of the 'products' in which the global banks trade have been invented in London, but can be used anywhere. London remains highly innovative and attracts people from all over the world to learn and to practice their trade in London before they take their skills home. Many such individuals develop a liking for the lifestyle that has been available in London for the highly affluent, and several of those buy homes in London even when their employment has moved elsewhere. Thus house prices in the British capital remain high,  conflicting with a nationwide trend for all but the finest houses to decline in price as individuals'  access to mortgage funding becomes more difficult.

Most of the new trade that was developed since the mid-eighties of the last century was misguidedly regarded as 'banking'. It was gambling, speculation. Derivatives, most swaps and many forms of futures were  just bets: neither party owned any assets related to the deal: in the first instance they were bets about how the prices of assets would move in the future, but they quickly moved on into guesses about how derivatives, futures and swaps would move in the future. People and firms who place the right bets [for them] at the right time in the development of the market situation can make profits from which hey can mitigate anticipated losses due to risk events such as adverse currency or interest-rate movements: such hedging can be beneficial to the clever, lucky players. Many other punters enter into contracts and escape from them without making significant losses. This has all added to the 'banks'' turnover, and the traders who have been granted bonuses on the basis of their turnover have thrived. The credibility of these markets is now at risk: and it is becoming impossible for the conglomerates to hold enough reserves on their balance sheets both to be able to fund for potential losses in the esoteric markets and to provide investment funds for 'real' businesses at the same time. So investment is suffering. The way to end this nonsense, as had many times been stressed on this blog site, is to recognise the gambling contracts for what they are, and to regulate them and tax them appropriately. If it is prepared to take the risk a conglomerate could have a retail banking subsidiary, and a merchant banking, stockbroking and bond issuance subsidiary which offers a mergers and acquisitions advisory and assistance service; both of which must be separately capitalised and conformably managed according to the rules set by the bank regulators. Such a conglomerate could also apply for a gaming licence for a separately-financed casino subsidiary that managed and issued derivatives, swaps and futures. If such a subsidiary satisfied consumer demands it could continue to grow the business as a complex of hedges for clients who understand what the market is offering them and what costs and risks are involved.

London casinos attract international high rollers:UK regulation of gambling is good and creates consumer confidence. There are grounds for hope that a regulated market in swaps, derivatives and futures could thrive and grow: but let it never be called banking, nor have access to the reserves that are accumulated to support the proper activities of retail or merchant banks.

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