It’s not the economy, it’s the banks, stupid.
The US and the UK economies are not going to function properly again until the problems of their bloated banks are solved. The US and the UK authorities from time to time announce new packages of huge sums of money to help the banks, in between their preferred choice of planning to spend huge sums of borrowed money on public works and projects in the hope these will reflate them out of trouble. They will not, unless they also mend the banks.
There are several alleged solutions being investigated to tackle the banks:
1. Establish a bad bank, to take away all the toxic debts from the current banks. The slimmed down banks can then resume lending.
2. Nationalise the existing major banks, pumping in enough money so they can start lending again.
3. Create a state sector good bank which starts lending
4. Offer state guarantees to the commercial banks for new lending to encourage them to start it up again
5. Relax regulatory constraints to allow more lending from stretched balance sheets
6. Print more money and inject it into the banks to encourage them to lend more
Proposals One and Two would be very expensive and unlikely to work. Transferring the bad debts from private to public sector doers not cure the malaise. It merely shifts the losses from shareholders and bankers to taxpayers for no obviously good reason. There is no evidence that a state owned bank would be better run than a private owned bank, despite the poor performance of several private sector banks. Governments themselves anyway say they do not want to run the banks they nationalise.
If more lending is the aim then establishing a new state owned competitor to existing banks and giving it capital so it can lend would be a less expensive way of creating new lending, pound for pound, than subsiding and propping up an existing bank. It could not realistically be large enough quickly enough to make a lot of difference. If it lent too much too quickly it would soon itself have lots of toxic debts, whilst its capital requirements would impose a substantial strain on public finances. Lending in these conditions is not easy, as many companies will struggle to repay the borrowings. Toxic debt is not a large pool of bad loans from a past era of excess that can be identified and tackled. The toxic loan pool is growing and changing all the time as the economy deteriorates.
Offering guarantees to stimulate lending, relaxing regulatory restraints on capital and injecting more cash into the banks are all helpful measures. If done in moderation they could help solve the problem.
None of this , however, tackles the underlying problems of overstretched balance sheets, too much dangerous business on banks books, past large errors by banks and a new climate of fear engendered by market movements and government hostility. There are a couple of proposals in the debate which do tackle this which need to be dealt with:
1. Make the banks declare the full extent of their losses – the full transparency approach
2. Bankrupt selected banks that have performed especially badly to force out their losses and get them behind us
The first idea has some merit, but is not of itself a solution. If the losses are too large markets will be spooked and then there will be even larger losses as the market value of banks assets falls further. To some extent this is happening anyway, as auditors and Directors consider what to put in accurate accounts at the 2008 year end. RBS is going to declare around £28 billion of losses as a result.
The second proposal was tried when the US authorities allowed Lehmans to go under. It led to further falls in asset values, destabilised other banks and made most in authority think they should not do that again.
So what should the authorities do? One day they might conclude that my proposal of the “intelligent bank manager” is worth a try, so here’s another effort to explain it.
The regulators and the commercial bankers have to work together where a bank is in trouble, to find a way of getting from overlent, overstretched and sitting on too many losses to a position where the bank’s balance sheet is strong enough to resume normal banking.
This requires case by case analysis, and agreement between regulator, central Bank and commercial bank about the timetable for remedial work. All the time the commercial bank is making the agreed adjustments it should receive lender of last resort support, and continue to receive regulatory approval.
Actions bad banks need to take include:
1. Cutting costs sharply. They need fewer highly paid people. There must be no bonuses. In some cases higher paid people will need to take a pay cut. These banks need to make more profit to pay the past losses.
2. Going through all loan books and having a plan to maximise the repayments on each loan – as many of them are doing to an extent already. Tough judgements have to made – will continuing the loan and keeping the customer going result in a better outcome, or is it better to demand repayment now because the customer losses and asset values are going to get worse? There was a lot of wishful thinking about property values and the like in the early phases of the downturn.
3. Closing down the investment banking and trading activities that put too much bank capital at risk. The world market has been oversupplied with derivatives, futures, options, collateralised debts and the like. Big book positions should be closed out wherever possible by banks at risk, and losses taken where too many bad bets have been placed.
4. The large banks created by expensive and over rapid acquisitions should be broken down into their old components, re-establishing the separate brands . Individual businesses should be sold off to reduce risk and raise cash.
5. Adding selective new business where risks and margins look attractive, but resisting efforts to make these banks lend to whoever at whatever, recreating past errors of optimistic lending.
6. Raising new priovate capital when becomes possible thanks to the recovery work.
This is just a sketch of what needs doing. Call it if you like the Intelligent bank manager approach. The central Bank in most countries is both the banks’ banker and their regulator. In Brown’s Britain of course we need to have two public bodies doing this job, so we need to involve both the Bank and the FSA. It is so obvious, it never gets examined on the BBC and therefore does not rate as an option for this media oriented government. Perhaps, however, one day they will give it a try, having tried everything else with such a lack of positive results. It is not a quick fix, but it is a reliable one. This is a big problem, so it requires hard work and patience to get ourselves out of it.