December 8, 2015

Even Bank Supporters Arguing for Restoration of Glass Steagall

John Dizard, who perhaps by virtue of being one of the Financial Times’ most original and insightful columnists, is relegated to its weekend “Wealth” section, has written a particularly important pair of articles. Note that Dizard’s ambit is not policy wonkery but apt and often cynical observations about behavior and trading patterns in less visible part of the financial markets, and sometimes the spending habits of the uber-rich themselves, and what they portend for investments and the economy.
The week before last, Dizard penned an important piece, In the shadow of quantitative easing, party like it is 1788, in which he pointed out that the meant-to-be-stealthy part of the bank bailouts, ZIRP and quantitative easing, had served to shift the risk of the next crisis off the regulated parts of the financial system and onto investors, particularly long-term investors like life insurers and pension funds. His piece last weekend, The US financial industry should listen to leftwing reformers, builds on his observations about where risks sit to argue that the financial services industry would do far better to listen to critics and go back to a clearer separation between commercial banking and trading activities* than we have now.
Dizard chooses to depict the case for breaking up big banks as a pinko argument, when the Bank of England has also fought fiercely for it; it had to settle for ring-fencing because the UK Treasury campaigned hard. And the arguments that the Bank of England made are sound. For instance, Andrew Haldane has pointed out that one of the results of deregulation has been homogeneity in strategies, and even in how banks model risk, ranging from approaches like VaR to the pervasive use of FICO in the US. The result resembles an ecological system with a dominant species. They are much more prone to collapse than ones with more diversity.
I’m in favor of Glass-Steagall type reforms too, but for different reasons. I’ve regarded from my very first days working with commercial banks (and that was Citibank in the early 1980s, meaning a top player at the time) that the managerial requirements for investment banks and commercial banks are diametrically opposed. And what has developed over time is a Rube Goldbergian compromise which results in the worst of all possible worlds (well, save for the inmates): it leaves the foxes, as in the “producers” running the henhouse, with the nominal leaders of these organizations regularly pleading ignorance as to the fact that there is gambling taking place in their ranks.

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