Over the years we have come to accept corporate scandals as normal fare in our capitalistic system. Still, when they are uncovered, these cases are nowadays generally dealt with little tolerance.
In the ultimate conclusion the ongoing financial crisis was caused by a monumental failure of governance. The discussion on re-regulation is thus a case of implementing a sensible system of governance. So, how are we doing? Are we on the right track? If not, why?
We know all about the breakdown of checks and balances in property lending, the rating agencies with perverse incentives and lack of independence or insurance companies who crossed over into capital markets without capital and/or know-how.
Certainly, some sensible changes seem under way, yet we continue to pull a blind eye on the largest and most harmful failures of corporate governance: the Federal Reserve and Commercial Banking.
The Federal Reserve is the institution at the top of our global financial system that has not only failed to govern the system but is itself a case of bad governance. Yet, it is not even questioned, instead it is being hailed as the savior from the crisis and an expansion of its role is being discussed.
Commercial banks on the other hand are fighting Paul Volcker and a growing number of elder bankers such as John Reed ex Citi, Nicholas Brady ex Dillon Read and head of Treasury under Reagan or John Bogle ex Vanguard who are pushing aggressively for a new version of Glass Steagall.
The bankers’ main counter to a break-up is the threat of a depression. I cannot support this argument. How could restoring rules in place before the crisis was built be any worse than what we have now? But it is true that there has to be a basic global arrangement. Finance more than any other industry is enormously fungible and globally mobile. Any country’s solitary action would simply lead to migration. Thus, on top of all the local hurdles, we need to come together and agree on a minimum standard for corporate governance within our global system.
When Glass Steagall was abolished in 1999, commercial banks expanded into everything that promised to lift profitability, from proprietary trading and investment to investment banking, investment advice, asset management, insurance and financial engineering. At that time European banks were already happily at it. However, instead of the world following the US with a good idea, the US followed the world with a profitable idea.
If politicians were sold on a model of dispersing or diversifying risks, in actuality risk became more concentrated. The financial system is not like the car industry, it is more like the transportation industry. Imagine a company were to build trains, planes, cars, boats and bicycles. The difficulties of integrating a full range of financial businesses and risks into one balance sheet have been fully exposed by this crisis.
It is not money or the financial system per se that creates innovation, growth and an improvement in the quality of our lives. Finance is merely the means to an end, the tool to create the optimum condition for valuable production or services. If, as is the case today, the lubricant, the catalyst within a system accounts for 40% of a system’s value, something has gone horribly wrong. The numbers are staggering and they point squarely at the banks, the global top 20 of which managed a combined balance sheet of more than $40 trillion in 2007 with their core businesses shrunk to often less than 20%. Bernie Maddoff may be an attractive Media target but his $50 billion fraud looks rather unsubstantial.
Bankers made the argument that spreading their wings into different areas of finance would help them diversify their business risks, i.e. reduce the volatility of their cash flows. The assumption is correct but it does not result in proper risk management, often quite the opposite. The supposedly reduced risks, indicated by a reduction in cash-flow and market-price volatility justified banks to expand businesses and leverage further in a reflexive cycle fed by derivative structures and the Federal Reserve. The ultimate result of this madness is that the stability of the system has come to rely on the ability to expand liquidity instead of sound structures that rest on sensible governance structures.
One of the most clear-cut distinctions between business models and risk structures in finance can be made between businesses dealing primarily with deterministic services and those that deal with an array of (often uncollateralized) uncertainties and time-frames that are not deterministic by definition.
Commercial banking concerns itself with largely deterministic, low risk finance. Banks take deposits, offer transaction and payment services and lend money attached to low-risk collateral. Commercial banking is very local and relationship based. The process is simple, involved, yet factory-like, with pretty much one contract matching the next, administered and overseen by a well-run back office in a secure and organized process. With all the ancillary functions—trade finance, foreign exchange, capital market access, payment services—a large national or global bank is a layered and multifaceted bureaucratic organization. Technology and experience have matured commercial banking into a commoditized, fairly low margin business whose risk is defined principally by overall economic stability and the leverage it is allowed to take on.
As such commercial banks are not set up to analyze or take non-collateralized risks, i.e. to manage funds and advise on investment. The management of non-collateralized risks and longer time-frames is generally very specialized, independent and most successful in entrepreneurial set-ups.
Fortunately, commercial banking is quite easily definable and detachable from the rest, in particular as there doesn’t have to be a strong line of separation. I see no reason not to allow commercial banks to engage in trading, investment banking, insurance or any other financial services that a client of theirs might require, as long as they remain marginal and account for less than 20% of the business, compared to often up to 80% today.
There is no alternative to ultimately breaking up these behemoths and contrary to what bankers have us believe, it is not difficult and not nearly as dangerous as the course we are pursuing now. It is not primarily a matter of technicalities, or global economic Armageddon, it is a matter of political will… to be continued
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