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Friday, 2 November 2012

Simple Truth

The debate on the EU Budget, and more specifically about how much the UK should properly pay into it over each of the next seven years, is becoming heated. Since a majority of the 27 member states are net recipients of funds from the EU it is to be expected that a simple majority will be in favour of the biggest possible increase in the budget. The relatively few states that are major contributors to the budget will claim added weight to their arguments: but in the final decision each country has one vote and can exercise only one veto. The exercise of the veto by any country does not cancel the budget, but  holds it at the previous year's level until the next annual debate. Whatever the outcome of the forthcoming meeting may be, it will have only a small impact on the formation of individual member governments' views in preparation for the next round of discussions about the future of the Union in the Council of Ministers.

One forthcoming issue that is being heavily signalled in London as a crunch point is the deliberation on proposals that the EU Parliament has already approved for the tightening of regulation, and the unification of regulation, over the 'financial services' sector of the economy. There is a huge amount of debate about the definition of the sector. The crisis of 2007 is generally ascribed to misconduct by 'the banks': but in fact a great deal of the reckless financing was done by firms that were not registered or regulated as banks. The main continental European businesses that wandered into the risky business, which was centred on London and New York, were registered and regulated in their home territory as banks. So it seems obvious to Europeans that the new regulatory regime must focus on preventing the things the continental banks got wrong when they ventured into anglophone markets in the noughties. During 2008-9 Britain and the US responded to the crisis by making the enfeebled non-bank institutions that survived [after Bear Stearns and Lehmans had gone under] merge into banks and thereby get a measure of protection from the banks' balance sheets; which could then be supported by cash injections from government and central banks. This created an unprecedented situation where it was not technically wrong to refer to the casino segments of the markets as segments of 'banking' or of 'the banks'.

Only one company that was known as an insurer - AIG - was ruined in the crisis: and that only because a tiny London-based offshoot was so utterly idiotic as to 'insure' the financial institutions through so-called credit default swaps. The rest of the massive insurance world was completely resilient to the crisis. Yet insurance is being subjected to heavy-handed retrospective requirements that will massively disadvantage the industry. In this the EU is behaving as stupidly as did the mavericks in AIG. There has been a little give by the purblind politicos, but the international leadership of the London Insurance Market - which has been unchallenged since 1700 and remains just as robust today - remains at threat. Thus dis-aggregation of insurance from the present EU regulatory proposals is essential.

Even more important - and further from the comprehension of the eurorats as they luxuriate tax-free in their favoured Brussels restaurants - is the necessary differentiation of the functions of the casino from any sort of banking. Proposals for a 'Financial Transactions Tax', whether it is to be a fraction of one per cent or several percentage points, presumes a commonality between 'real' banking, casino 'banking', insurance, and other 'financial services' such as shipbroking and arbitration. Derivatives, swaps, spread bets and most futures are simply gambling slips: they have some legitimate uses in offsetting perceived business and social risks for real world trade and industry; but they are based on the purchase of a ticket which is priced according to an assessment of future probabilities and such calculations are therefore wholly speculative - as all bets are. Such contracts should not be counted or taxed as a sub-category of banking transactions.

A price is paid by the entity that considers that it is mitigating perceived risk through a gambling contract, and there might in the future be a payment to the gambler if the predicted eventuality occurs; but no twist of the imagination could set the contract in accord with payments under normal regulated banking contracts. The subject matter of the contract is a bet: so its legal status should be defined in accord with betting laws, the conduct of market participants should be regulated by a gambling commission, and the transactions should all be subject to gambling tax.

 Three distinct regulatory regimes are needed: for insurance, for gambling and for banking. No elaborate differentiation between 'retail' banking and [non-casino] 'investment' banking, as perceived by the British Vickers Commission, is necessary. The EU proposals for financial services as a whole, as they stand, are likely to be significantly more detrimental to business growth over all sectors of the economy, seen from this perspective, than they are recognised to be by those who think that they are defending the London Market. The learning curve that London's defenders must climb should be even steeper than that they realise if they are to present the real issue to the European authorities; and one doubts that they will have the capability even to recognise the point that is made above.


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