Friday, 19 June 2009

To the right

Thankfully, I could never be a Tory, but given the lack of relevant thought on the Left its interesting to read the blues are apparently getting their shit together when it comes to the credit crunch and coming up with some ideas (as opposed to any commitment to concrete policies and/or clear proposals).

The biggie it seems is significantly changing the role of the Bank of England in relation to the financial system. You can read about much of what underpins this suggestion, idea and/or potential policy in a Centre for Policy studies paper written by Sir Martin Jacomb, deputy chairman of Barclays from 1985 to 1993 and a director of the Bank of England from 1986 to 1995.

His paper states “The Tripartite Arrangement needs to be recast. The FSA should become a subsidiary of the Bank of England. Its relationship with the Bank should be similar to that of the MPC.” And “Responsibility for the stability of the financial system as a whole should be entrusted to a third subsidiary, the Systemic Policy and Risk Committee. This would report in much the same way as the MPC.” Besides which “The idea of a greater role for EU regulation of UK financial services must be resisted.”

It’s almost too easy to rip the pish out of Sir Martin. There’s his grasp of history i.e. facts, like when he refers to Northern Rock as “the first run since Overend Gurney in 1866” and a “national disgrace”; mebbe aye, mebbe no except the last was in 1878 when the City of Glasgow Bank failed, a far more significant matter because it prompted the widespread adoption of limited liability and as such fundamentally changed the relationship between investors and companies in Britain. Even better according to Wikipedia Sir Martin also described insider trading a few years back as a "victimless crime", suggesting a somewhat interesting moral compass. Finally, the easiest criticism to make is that he’s simply an auld duffer who isn’t so much presenting an argument as moaning on over a rather good brandy about how it wasn’t like this in his day.

Its also good sport to see a think tank set up by Sir Keith Joseph articulating how to intervene in markets, but I guess that’s a somewhat more esoteric point. But, hey ho, if this is the cutting edge of Tory thought lets give it a think because politically it’s an absolute blinder.

1) It would establish real, clear blue water between the Tories and Labour who are much keener on retaining the existing tri-partite balance between the FSA, Bank of England and Treasury.

2) By replacing the tri-partite structure it denigrates what Labour previously did.

3) In the grand scheme of things i.e. compared to say quantitative easing, its relatively easy to understand.

4) It’s relatively easy to sell via soundbites e.g. a new dawn for financial regulation, a fundamental break from the past, CHANGE, CHANGE, CHANGE! Etc.

5) It doesn’t cost much – a new committee here, a new organisational structure there and bingo. Which in turn means you can go on Newsnight and say its a fully costed policy and aren’t we prudent.

And that’s about it really. What the principles and tools underlying all this CHANGE! might be aren’t really mentioned. Keeping out EU regulation is also as silly as a spotty sock with multi-coloured toes. Sure it’ll play well to home county duffers, UKIP voters and what not, but as the Fortis Bank collapse made unavoidably clear multinational banks require well co-ordinated, multinational regulation.

All that aside, I personally agree that the Bank of England needs more teeth. But, thats because I think the FSA is the banks' ineffectual bitch more than anything else. This made it interesting to see Adam Posen’s appointment to the MPC. For the FT what matters is he’s “an axeman” who in his testimony to the US congress on banks stated “have top management replaced and current shareholders wiped out.” Setting aside the city boy toss, the fact an expert on the Japanese lost decade has been appointed to the MPC should actually be making us all shit in our boots as to the prospects of that happening here. Second, he has clear, technical, detailed views on the reconstruction of the financial system.

That his appointment was swiftly followed (do these feckers actually co-ordinate this stuff I wonder? Nah, no chance) by the Governor of the Bank of England stating in a speech that “We (he?) need instruments to prevent the size, leverage, fragility and risk of the financial system from becoming too great” and that “If some banks are thought to be too big to fail, then, ... they are too big”, is kinda interesting cos it leads back to auld duffer Jacomb’s emphasis on a beefed up Bank of England give or take the Governor also making explicit reference to the important stuff (e.g. policy instruments & leverage), that actually matters and about which the Tories aren’t saying hee haw.

So it looks like a bun fight is developing with the only people supporting the FSA being the current government. This is doubly fun because the standard criticism of senior Bank of England appointments is they’re too academic i.e. what you really want is some posh, clubbable debt salesman (e.g. a banker) regulating the stability of the financial system (see the hassle over Charlie Bean becoming deputy governor fer instance). Moreover, besides the bloody obvious vested interest and maintenance of regulatory capture - which is the technical term for "being the banks' bitch" - this also plays well in Britain due to the widespread suspicion of people who can think.

Given this reality it’s hardly surprising the FSA stands out amongst the various regulators for being dominated by ex-bank workers unlike say the CEO of OFWAT who is a regulator and civil servant thru and thru. So with the Bank of England making some clear moves to try and increase its overly academic authority (1), it makes you wonder what the banking industry’s rear guard action will be. I’m guessing based on personal experience (a) they’re too thick and arrogant for the most part to realise before it starts approaching legislation and (b) the sole argument they will subsequently make against anything they don’t like will be that it undermines Britain’s position as a financial centre (the subtext here being tax revenues, tax revenues), regardless of whether a proposal is actually perfectly sound from the perspective of the economy as a whole.

Bunch of cock really.

(1) Alternatively it’s a cry for help because the Chancellor, the FSA and various city interest groups have already stitched things up.

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