To much fanfare in the British media, the Independent Commission on Banking, chaired by Sir John Vickers, published its final report this month. Its interim report, published in April, had already attracted a great deal of attention and debate. This last report would – according to the BBC’s ever-excitable business editor, Robert Peston – be “hated” by British banks and promised to be “possibly” the most radical shake-up of banking in the UK ever undertaken.
Some of the proposals in the report seem sensible and are improvements on the status quo. The main thrust of the report is about how to avoid UK taxpayers having to cover the cost of another financial crisis. By ring-fencing the retail part of a bank’s business, its investment activities are no longer meant to enjoy an implicit government subsidy (the result of bankers knowing that in a crisis the government will save the bank in order to protect savers). This would make it more expensive for banks to engage in investment banking activities but the Vickers-led commission rightly responded that this is only a case of making banks pay for the risks they are taking.
A few problems stand-out though, all to do with the role banking plays in the contemporary national and international economy. The idea of ring-fencing – which is a watered-down version of the more radical idea of dividing up banks entirely, investment banks on one side and retail banks on the other – might make some sense in theory but in practice it is difficult to see whether it would actually fundamentally change the way the government acts in a crisis. The investment arm of a bank might be expected to take a loss in line with its risky behaviour up to a point. But what if this would threaten the survival of a major British firm, dependent upon financing from a shaky investment bank? What if more than one major firm was threatened? Would the government not be obliged to intervene as before? The idea of ring-fencing rests upon the idea that investment banking exists in one sphere, the “real”, i.e. non-financial, economy in another. This is simply not true.
Another problem is that the report invests too much importance into identifying an ideal structure for the City of London. This suggests that if the institutional rules are the right ones, we will be free from future crises. Or, at the very least, the consequences of future crises will be severely constrained, unable to spill onto the innocent paving of Main Street. But there is little evidence to suggest that the structure of banking industries is the crucial variable in the ongoing financial and economic crisis. Today, debate rages around part-nationalization of French banks as shares of big French banks plummet. And yet French banking is different in many ways from the British banking industry. The smaller and regional Spanish cajas are also in great trouble today, with many suggesting they should be consolidated into a smaller number of bigger players, a move that would make Spain look more like… Britain. The issue doesn’t seem to be the structure of the industry as such but rather something deeper. To focus on banking reform is to present the structure of the banking industry as a main cause of the present difficulties and of the 2008 financial meltdown. Events since 2008 suggest that it is less cause than consequence.
A really radical move would be to trace in detail the causes of the 2008 crisis and the current global economic slow-down, situating the role of the banks within a broader study of a financialized global economy.