Posts Tagged ‘bank reform’


August 15, 2011

The European Central Bank has revealed that it spent Euro22 billion buying bonds in the first two days of last week, almost all of which would have been Italian and Spanish paper. Italian and Spanish bond purchases were only authorised from last Monday. I gave a detailed view on the structural story here, on Italy’s unconvincing promises to sort itself out here, and my take on the reality behind last week’s equity panic here.

So: in its first two days the ECB spent almost one-third as much as it did in its (wholly unsuccessful) multi-month bond buying programme for Greece, Ireland and Portugal (Euro74bn). It is nice that the admission comes on the same day that Merkel and Sarko reiterated there will never be any Eurobonds, not ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, jamais, niemals…  (FT sub needed).

Meanwhile sellers of Italian (and Spanish) debt have had their starter and are looking towards the kitchen door. But as they savour the flavour on their palates, what is that rather unusual smell coming from within? I know! It is the aroma of German taxpayer money burning…


August 7, 2011

The country with more laws than any other in Europe, and whose institutional failure is based squarely on its inability to enforce its laws, has promised to overcome the financial crisis by… writing more laws.

The main points of Friday’s announcement at the Berlusconi-Tremonti press conference (FT subscription needed) are constitutional amendments requiring a balanced budget and the liberalisation of an as-yet undefined list of professions.

Perhaps Berlusconi and Tremonti forgot that their country signed a European Stability and Growth Pact in 1997 — two years before joining the Euro — that limits national debt to 60 percent of GDP. Perhaps they are unaware that in Italy the law says you must wear your seatbelt and stop at zebra crossings. Perhaps they have not read the constitution they plan to amend, and all the wondrous things it already promises which do not exist in Italy (more below).

It will be a wonder if the markets buy into this bullshit beyond 9am on Monday morning.

The S&P downgrade of US debt (FT subscription needed) allowed the weekend press to spend much of its time speculating if the US faces panic on Monday. I doubt it. Everything is relative and everything, ultimately, is about the capacity to pay.

Which is why, sooner or later, either the IMF comes in or Italy defaults.

There is, I think, a reasonable case that it would be better for Italy to go for a negotiated default and leave the Euro area. An exit is perhaps the one thing that could wake Italians up. (My ideal would be to kick Italy out of the EU completely and — so long as it would concede historic culpability for the Armenian genocide — let Turkey come in at the same time. I think that might just get the message through.)

Infinitely more likely, however, is that Italy continues its historic oscillation between puerile nationalism and running to mummy, in the form of the United States or the European Union. The EU has shown it lacks the discipline to help Italy, and so in any rescue in this crisis the heavy lifting will have to be done by (mostly American) IMF staffers backed by ECB funds. Apart from the fact that most of the money will be European this time, we are I suspect looking at 1945 deja vu all over again. A bunch of foreigners come in and tell Italians how to run their lives. It is utterly depressing that this is necessary. But I hope the guys and girls at the IMF are getting ready, because it will be necessary. I will write more about the task they face when it is clear they are on their way.


Sunday evening at 11pm the ECB puts out a press release, point 6 of which appears to mean it will start buying Italian and Spanish government bonds as soon as Monday morning. Guess they believed Matilda more than me then…

ECB Sunday 7 August 2011


Mamma’s here. Those ECB folks grabbed a couple of hours sleep Sunday night, jumped out of bed, and started buying Italian and Spanish bonds (FT subscription needed) as soon as the markets opened Monday. The FT says bond yields are ‘tumbling’. Looked at the other way round, the ECB is offering far better prices than the market and grateful sellers are jumping with joy. What we want to know, of course, is the volume. We should start to get some information later in the day. My base case remains that this will be a very temporary respite.


Much as I love the FT, I cannot believe how far behind the curve it is on this story today. You are better off reading Bloomberg for free:

Mostly this and then this.

The markets know that the ECB has neither the money nor the cojones for the job in hand and are headed south. G-7 is wittering on about hanging tough and doing everything necessary. It is time for the IMF to cancel all holiday. The end is nigh. I just wish I had cash to buy distressed equities — but I guess this is god’s way of punishing me for being a writer.


It wouldn’t be Italy if:

Some magistrate from some town you never heard of didn’t order police to raid the Milan offices of the ratings agencies because the financial crisis is clearly a satanic//American/British/etc conspiracy.

Links in Italian: 

Corriere della Sera reports the presser (Note how Italy’s most cosmopolitan newspaper refers to the US Secretary of the Treasury as Mr Timothy).

An editorial in the Corriere is interesting inasmuch as it refers to ‘a wave of speculation’ and ‘irrational’ market movements. Is it irrational to sell off Italian debt? I, personally, do not think so. If Italians do, they have the private savings to fund their debt domestically, so perhaps they should buy up the paper that is being sold. It would be a solid investment for them and it would show their trust in the reforming credentials of their government… Less cynically, I was struck at a party with Italian professionals on Saturday how receptive otherwise very smart people are to the notion that Italy is indeed the victim of some new and terrible global conspiracy.

The constitution:

Background to Italy’s 139-article constitution — one which parliamentary commissions have three times in the era of Italy’s decline tried and failed to simplify and focus.

Official English translation of the constitution.

Italy’s constitution guarantees many wondrous things. Readers of this blog will not be surprised that my personal favourites are:

Art. 10

The Italian legal system conforms to the generally recognised principles of international law.

Art. 54

Those citizens to whom public functions are entrusted have the duty to fulfil such functions with discipline and honour.

Art. 111

The law provides for the reasonable duration of trials.

Pity for the rich

October 20, 2010

It has been a very long break while I write the first part of a new book. When you are spending all day working on writing, the idea of writing a blog as well becomes rather less attractive. Nonetheless, with all the fun things going on in the world, I am going to see if I can get back into it after the summer break.

Joe Stiglitz (you will need a subscription) has come out swinging with an attack on what has been dubbed ‘QE2’ or a second round of quantitative easing of the US money supply. What is best about his analysis is that it points out the fallacy that monetary interventions are costless (whereas fiscal interventions raise public debt, as we all know). Stiglitz points out that QE1, which involved the purchase of around US$1 trillion of US government bonds and mortgage securities will have a cost down the line as US bond prices fall (or, put another way, as interest rates rise to more normal historic levels). With QE2 set to be of the order of as much as US$2 trillion, the quantitative easing expected to be confirmed in November will involve long term public costs of an even greater magnitude.

Stiglitz points out that fiscal interventions (can) have clear benefits. Of course there is the money you throw down in welfare benefits to those who lose their jobs. But over and above this, you build schools, railways, new energy infrastructure, etc, etc, which has a long term benefit to society. Things may not be the same with the long-run public cost of unconventional monetary policy.

What Stiglitz doesn’t do is to say where the gain from quantitative easing investment is likely to end up. The answer, surely, is that much of it will end up in the hands of the rich. The expectation of QE2 is already driving a big rally in the US stock market. Where QE1 probably prevented rigor mortis in the banking system during the initial shock, QE2 is mainly telling the financial system that stock prices are likely to rise, if only for ‘liquidity’ reasons. From a bullish stock market, the rich benefit disproportionately. The poor see little or no benefit, consistent with a 40-year trend in the US to make the rich richer relative to the poor.

The real gainers from QE2, I think, are going to be the decidedly rich and the super-rich. This is because, unlike the loose monetary policy after 2001 which fed housing bubbles, this time the liquidity is going to drive asset bubbles and stock market bubbles in developing country markets in which ordinary people do not much play. A flood of cheap dollars, passing through the hands of hedge funds which serve the rich, is headed for the stock markets of Thailand and Indonesia, condo purchases in Hong Kong and Singapore, Latin American local currency government bonds, and so on. The financial managers of the already-rich know how to trade these markets, ordinary Europeans and Americans do not.

There was an Asian stock market bubble in 1991-4 during the last great Euro-US recession. But that was largely based on ‘discovery of Asia‘ overexcitement. The emerging markets bubble we should expect next year will be based much more on domestic US monetary policy (remember that interest rates were high in the early 90s). It may serve, indirectly, to force some warranted currency realignments by pushing up the value of currencies that have been artificially held down by government interventions in east Asia. But above all, within the US, the experience is likely to see a large transfer of wealth from the taxpayer to the already opulent.

It’s all wrong

April 13, 2010

I have written nothing on this blog for over a month while I try to think through the logic of financial sector reform in the wake of the global financial crisis. Frankly, I haven’t got very far. I am not sufficiently knowledgeable about the detailed systemic workings of contemporary banks and ‘shadow banks’ (the bits, like brokers and pension funds, that cause bank-like problems without being banks) to be able to offer a clear blueprint.

Today, however, I was reading some of the now declassified material surrounding a policy choice by the United States government that was clear, decisive and hugely beneficial to tens of millions of people. This was the decision at the end of the Second World War to confiscate all rented farmland in defeated Japan, and to redistribute it to actual cultivators. Reading the original memorandum that led to the policy, one is struck by the extraordinary simplicity and clarity of the thinking: here are the lesser interventions we could attempt – most obviously tenancy reform – and here is why, though such interventions seem superficially tempting and easier, they will either change nothing or make the situation worse. Here is the case for a radical intervention (expropriation). Here is how it can be achieved and the valuation mechanism that will make the process affordable to the Japanese government (offering some small compensation to landlords). And that, of course, is what the US and the new post-war Japanese government did. They changed the institutional terms under which Japanese agriculture, and half the country’s population, operated, setting the stage for the most remarkable developmental story the world has seen (more remarkable than anything we have yet observed in China).

I mention this because reading a memorandum about an effective policy intervention reminds me that I can state a case about financial reform without spelling out every detail. The logic is the same as with the Japanese example for no other reason than that the case for radical change in finance is now just as compelling, and the likelihood that lesser interventions will achieve nothing or worse is just as great. In essence, financial reform requires its own act of expropriation: we have to take away from bankers, shadow bankers, and other speculators all money which they can play with in the current financial system but do not stand to lose because of explicit and implicit government guarantees.

Martin Wolf in The Financial Times (here and here and here, though possibly not if you do not have a subscription) thinks this is impossible because the financial system is too complex. His colleague at The FT, John Kay, thinks that it is possible if you hive off the most core ‘core’ of finance – the so-called ‘payments system’ – and restrict that bit of banking to buying only government securities with the retail deposits it takes in. This of course leaves huge chunks of finance – including things like mortgages – outside of what Kay and others call ‘narrow banking’, the little bit that under Kay’s proposals government would explicitly guarantee.

Japanese land reform makes me think that one should be able to do something more practical and far-reaching than what Kay proposes, given the political will. The counter to Wolf’s arguments is simply that finance is whatever politicians make it; they can rewrite the rules as they like. This, though we have forgotten it, is why we have politicians. And this means that the objective of separating speculative from non-speculative money is feasible.

In the UK, where the government already owns most of the retail banking sector, I would force all core banks to become mutuals (building societies), owned by their members. This is the appropriate form of ownership for the core, boring, low-cost bank activities, which should serve the needs of customers rather than third-party investors. These mutuals would take in government-guaranteed deposits which they would use as the float we employ to make regular payments, to finance mortgages on first homes, to provide working capital to business, and to purchase government securities — all within bands set by the Bank of England. The central bank would hence have a somewhat expanded mandate, giving core banks modestly changing limits for the amount of treasuries they could hold, the minimum business lending they had to do, and their mortgage lending range. This would not be finance by bureaucratic dictat because the Bank of England would be acting within its own limits and because the core mutuals would not provide all mortgages, all business finance, or buy all government debt. But people would use the mutuals because their deposits were guaranteed and credit would tend to be cheaper because the assets and guarantees behind it would tend to be better than outside the mutuals.

In effect, individual citizens would have a certain amount of core mutual ‘entitlement’ and would be encouraged, through voting, to set the agenda and objectives of their mutual. One role of the mutual part of the financial system would be to address the welfare needs which private bankers claim have been supported by private sector bank deregulation – they mean by this access to more mortgage lending for poorer people. Government would probably mandate the Bank of England to force the mutuals to lend a certain amount of their money to poorer people who maintain long-term exclusive accounts and (in a financial sense) behave themselves, such that they could borrow in excess of normal loan multiples to buy first properties. Separately, the mutuals would probably also offer some forms of ‘plain vanilla’, low(er) yield pension products that might be given capital guarantees – contraversial – or some other advantage, say preference in the allocation of government debt or legally-mandated first dibs on private sector initial public offerings (IPOs).

None of this would reduce risk outside the core banking field, indeed it might well increase it. Not to worry: more frequent, more limited collapses among non-guaranteed financial institutions would almost certainly be a good thing. When a crisis occurred, it would – unlike today – be possible to bankrupt the institution in question and send a clear message to people about the risk associated with investing in ‘the real world’. This would be possible, of course, because there finally would be a real world, instead of the unified Never-Never Land that global finance has become since the demise of clear regulation, beginning in the early 1970s. We would all have our building society account, and our other uninsured investments, and no one could be in any doubt about which was which. The system, I suspect, would also be fantastic for competition because it would allow lighter-touch regulation of uninsured financial institutions. My feeling is that politicians are far too keen at present to put the boot into hedge fund managers, who are a real font of new ideas (compared with bankers), because it is so much easier than changing an economy’s overarching ‘financial architecture’.

None of the above will happen, because it would need another World War with 50 million dead to make it happen (which brings us back to Japanese land reform). But it would still, I think, be the right thing to do and hence is worth discussing. Of course there are lots of problems with what I have outlined, not least finding a new, workable balance between the mutual and uninsured financial sectors.  Any thoughts on how to address such issues would be gratefully received.

Related items of note:

Paul Krugman suggests that the financial reform package in the US is likely to be so lame that it is best to boycott it.

Roger Alcaly, in the NYRB, reminds us that a lot of hedge fund managers (like him) are much nicer and more intelligent than a lot of bankers, with the best review of the mechanics of the crisis I have seen.

The manifesto of the British Conservative party for the 6 May 2010 election is full of bluster about mutual-style organisations, as are other party proposals. But no one I am aware of is proposing that a core banking system be restricted to mutuals, which would be a significant policy.

We should not forget the fiscal travesty in our financial system – the fact that interest on debt is tax deductible for business where dividends on equity are not. In essence, this provides a fiscal/legal guarantee of acute over-indebtedness at some point in every economic cycle. Various people have mentioned the fiscal issue in the past year (Martin Wolf, Clive Crook, someone at The Economist, me on this blog, me in a Mr. Angry letter to The FT). Unfortunately the tendency among the journalists is to drop the point down to the eighth paragraph (hard to avoid when no politician will even speak about the question). Still, the fiscal thing ought to be written about in its own right.

No FT, no rubbish on your breakfast tray

January 22, 2010

The Financial Times greets Obama’s promise to restore something akin to Glass-Steagall with the worst, most congenitally spineless and brainless editorial (you may need a subscription to read this drivel…) that I can remember on its pink pages.

It starts with a tabloid headline – ‘Obama in declaration of war on Wall Street’ – and goes quickly downhill. The first four words of the first sentence are ‘Markets nosedived on Thursday…’ This refers to falls of 1.9% in the S&P 500 and 1.6% in the FTSE 100. They didn’t write ‘spiralled out of control’ when the same markets went up by not much less a couple of days before.

But it is the non-attempt to critique what Obama is saying that riles. The president should not try, the paper says, to prevent deposit-taking banks from trading on their own account because: ‘Boundaries between bank functions will be hard to draw.’ It is that old chestnut of the gormless right: this sounds new and unusual and a little bit difficult, so let’s do nothing.

Instead, The FT recommends an immediate return to the failed approach of the past 40 years: ‘The government’s key policy lever should be to make sure that institutions hold enough capital to reflect the risks that they run and the threats that they pose to the rest of the financial system.’ There have been endless efforts to regulate banks through their capital rather than their structures and they have failed for a very simple reason. It is that you cannot make rules about capital adequacy that are valid through the economic cycle.

In other words, the amount of capital that it is appropriate for a bank to hold when no one wants to invest (like now) is completely different to the amount of capital a bank should be made to hold when the world thinks that property prices will never fall again (a la pre-crisis). This is why economists refer to banks as pro-cyclical: they make economic cycles worse by mirroring the greed and fear of society at large.

Management by capital alone could only be effective if it was run by some kind of omnisicient, globally-empowered committee. This would tell the banking industry how much capital it should have at different points in the economic cycle. Banks would be instructed by the world’s cleverest men and women when to calm down and when to lend against their will.

Think about this for a moment. You will now have realised that the proposal is completely impracticable. There could never be a Pareto-efficient agreement about who should be on this committee any more than there is about who should be on the UN Security Council. And such a system almost certainly would not work anyway, because the chances of finding omniscient people are extremely small.

So you do what works. That means separating the utility and speculative functions of financial institutions in a way similar to what was done by the 1933 Glass-Steagall Act. People who want to play with the savings of the ordinary, conservative public must run one kind of bank, whose activities are narrowly circumscribed; people who want to leverage up 30 or 40 times must operate a different kind of financial business in which the capital at risk really will be lost when things go pear-shaped.

Why is this so difficult to agree on? The FT completely fails to point out that Paul Volcker, who has been brought in to consult on the reforms, is a highly orthodox former federal reserve governor who was reappointed to that position by Ronald Reagan. He is not some kind of hippy. What Volcker has, and what Obama’s current economics and fed team palpably lacks, is the intellectual reach and self-confidence to figure out and push through simple, effective changes which the US establishment will not like.


The FT editorial is also completely at odds with what its own chief business commentator writes and with what its investment editor has to say

Here, in The New York Times, is someone else who is not a hippy writing sensibly about bank regulation.

Here is reaction from emerging markets guru Chris Wood.

The Economist is hurt by its Thursday publication day, having produced a two-page briefing on bank regulation prior to Obama’s ‘Glass-Steagall’ remarks. A reaction to the latest news is posted to The Economist site.

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