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Thursday, 2 August 2012

Four London Markets

Until the so-called 'big bang' in the middle of the nineteen eighties there was a complex of specialist markets: retail and wholesale insurance, retail and business banking, building societies, pension funds, investment management, stock broking, stock jobbing, bond trading, bill trading and several others. Some merchant banks covered a range of these functions; but they all kept clear of retail banking and of all categories of insurance. After the bang most of the non-insurance functions were pretty quickly subsumed into large conglomerates: as a general rule, only the firms that remained under the control of families stuck to a selected range of specialist functions, while the majority leapt into a spectrum of activities that was so broad that the central board of directors could not possibly hope to maintain adequate oversight.

That all came unstuck in 2007-8 and now there is mounting tension between the City of London, weakly 'supported' by the UK government, and the Commission of the European Union who want to impose common methods of regulation and taxation over all finance sectors in all EU member states [and not just the eurozone]. The press is slowly becoming cognisant that insurance will became increasingly expensive if absurd rules of reserving - which may be relevant for banking - are imposed on insurers, More recently feature articles and leaders have been written on the crazy proposal that pension funds should similarly be undermined; shrinking the value of all past and future pension contributions and building up a huge increase in old-age poverty for the future.

It is now urgent and vitally important that the UK government - and, in this, the Labour opposition should declare complete support for the position - declares unconditionally that they will protect the interests of investors, savers [including contributors to pension funds] and those who wish prudently to insure their assets in a rational and affordable system.

It is also crucially important for the survivial of the economy that the international earnings of the financial industries are at least maintained. Assuming that the irrational and irresponsible system of giving traders bonuses proportional to turnover [however risky] rather than on the basis of achieved real profits is replaced by a more rational system of remuneration, it is likely that the income-tax yield from the City will decline hugely; and alternative sources of government revenue will urgently be required if the national deficit is to be diminished. If the historic and entirely rational requirement for reserving by insurers is maintained [and if the daft actuarial preference for bond over equity investment is set aside] that sector can remain the world leader. The Vickers Commission's recommendation that 'retail' banking should be separated [in regulatory terms, if not by separation of ownership - though that would be desirable] from 'wholesale' has been accepted by the government and should be implemented: though fears of the government compromising and thus undermining the separation  are mounting. Given that Vickers will, to some limited extent, be implemented, attention should then be focussed on driving genuine wedges between materially useful merchant banking and the huge mass of activity that is appropriately called 'casino banking'.

Before the intrusion of modern Economics in the eighteen-seventies, Political Economists had tought - correctly - that a distinction should be draen between 'productive' and unproductive investment. Productive investment laid down the basis for more production in the future; unproductive investment provided products that were consumed in ways that did not put anything into future economic activity. That distinction should be restored, and those wholesale financial activities that conduce to the facilitation of productive investment should be in one category [let us call it merchant banking] and those that manage purely speculative finance or hedge financial deals unrelated to material economic capital formation [casino finance] should be in another category. Merchant banking should be regulated and taxed as banking is managed by governments all over the world. Casino finance should be registered, regulated and taxed for what it is: betting. Just as appropriate regulation and taxation have made London casinos popular among global high rollers, and the retail British betting industry has been highly successful, so both face-to-face and online finance gambling in futures, derivatives, short-selling [of shares not owned by the sellers] should be legalised and regulated and taxed as a great British business. Before anyone else does it, the City should develop on its great tradition as the magnet for an expanding global trade in bets, which is what most of the turnover was before the crunch. The credit crisis has arisen largely because governments mistakenly adopted and monetised the so-called "banks'" gambling debts; and part  of Britain's way out of the mess can be speeded by optimising on the existing City expertise.

In due course, real productive investment must enable industry [including creative industrial sectors] to grow and provide an increasing part of the national product; but for a quick fix the opening of the casino finance business - on an open and honest basis - is the primary feasible option.

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