Banking, its Purpose, Risks and Rewards

Misty times on Wall Street
Misty times on Wall Street

Banks are returning to profit. The new chief executive of the taxpayer-owned Royal Bank of Scotland complains that

We sometimes feel as if commentators variously want us to go back to over-lending, to operate on a ‘not-for-profit’ basis, to never entertain a client and to offer employment conditions that deter the best and brightest.

All the evidence is that the government is listening to him, and that the banks will soon re-acquire their independent status and carry on pretty much as before. And yet the complaints of Stephen Hester are somewhat undermined by the balance sheet changes that by his own admission are necessary to restore the bank (from its own point of view) to health and safety over the next 3 years. This involves doubling its ratio of the safest-rated assets from 4% to at least 8%, increasing its liquidity reserves from £90bn to £150bn, and reducing its wholesale funding reliance from £343bn to £150bn with a consequent reduction of its loan/deposit ratio from 156% to 100%. According to Hester, ‘those with accountability for past mistakes have gone.’ So the previous appalling state of the balance sheet should be regarded as a natural disaster of which the ‘the new RBS’ need hold no memory. This is clearly nonsense. No other bankers, Hester among them, were queuing up to denounce the Royal Bank’s balance sheet position before the crunch came. Nor would we expect them to do so. The problem with the banks was and is little to do with the errors of individuals. It isn’t much to do with their talent and inspiration either. The problem lies with a complete failure on the part of bankers and the government to understand banking and its social function.

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Welcome to Cameronia!

The Conservative Party leader David Cameron has today published in the Guardian the text of a speech in which he outlines a programme of constitutional reform. What he says is interesting, but shouldn’t be taken too seriously. We mustn’t forget that David Cameron is no political thinker. He is and has always been a political operator. He is the type of individual we need less of in Parliament. Still we must make do with what we have, and maybe he can serve an important purpose. Certainly he may have jumped on the right bandwagon. Labour, having promised constitutional reform to appeal to their less tribally-committed supporters over the years, have as far as Westminster is concerned signally failed to deliver. Indeed it is practically (and may effectively turn out to be so) criminal that the government has not transferred many of the systems trialled in the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly (proportional representation, powerful and independent committees, transparent expense arrangements, to name but a few) to Westminster. It is probably too late to claim the initiative back on these issues, and so we have the strange sight of the Conservatives leading on them. Continue reading Welcome to Cameronia!

A New Politics?

The Daily Telegraph and their informant have certainly opened a veritable can of worms! Their publication day after day of new revelations of MPs’ expense claims has certainly boosted their sales, despite the widespread reporting of every detail in other outlets. But if they also have a political agenda, this must be a dangerous game, both for the paper’s chosen champions, David Cameron’s Tories, and for the rest of us. The likely public response to the Telegraph’s uncovering of the somewhat murky operations of the Commons Fees Office is ‘a plague on all their houses’. This will probably encompass all the prominent parties in Westminster: Labour, Conservatives and Liberal Democrats. Many will presumably opt not to vote in the Euro elections on 4th June and perhaps in the General Election which must come within the next 12 months. Some may be persuaded to vote for candidates they would not otherwise have voted for. If they are going to do so let us hope they are clear on exactly the issues at stake. Continue reading A New Politics?