On 15 September 2008, Lehman Brothers, the fourth-largest investment bank in the USA, filed for bankruptcy. Although the credit crisis had been building since mid 2007, the demise of Lehmans was a pivotal event in the unfolding of the financial crisis and the subsequent severe recession in most developed economies. Banks were no longer seen as safe and huge amounts of government money had to be poured into banks to shore up their capital and prevent further bankruptcies. Partial nationalisation seemed the only way of rescuing several banks and with it the global financial system.
A deep and prolonged recession followed (see Chart 1: click here for a PowerPoint). In response, governments pursued expansionary fiscal policies – at least until worries about rising government deficits and debt caused a lurch to austerity policies. And central banks pursued policies of near zero interest rates and subsequently of quantitative easing. But all the time debate was taking place about how to reform banking to prevent similar crises occurring in the future.
Solutions have included reform of the Basel banking regulations to ensure greater capital adequacy. The Basel III regulations (see Chart 2) demand considerably higher capital ratios than the previous Basel II regulations.
Other solutions have included proposals to break up banks. Indeed, just this week, the Lloyds Banking Group has hived off 631 of its branches (one sixth of the total) into a newly reformed TSB. Another proposal is to ring-fence the retail side of banks from their riskier investment divisions. In both cases the aim has been to avoid the scenario where banks are seen as too big to fail and can thus rely on governments to bail them out if they run into difficulties. Such reliance can make banks much more willing to take excessive risks. Further details of the new systems now in place are given in the Robert Peston article below.
But many critics maintain that not nearly enough has been done. Claims include:
• The Basel III rules are not tough enough and banks are still being required to hold too little capital.
• Rewards to senior bankers and traders are still excessive.
• The culture of banking, as a result, is still too risk loving in banks’ trading arms, even though they are now much more cautious about lending to firms and individuals.
• This caution has meant a continuing of the credit crunch for many small businesses.
• Higher capital adequacy ratios have reduced bank lending and have thus had a dampening effect on the real economy.
• The so-called ring-fences may not be sufficient to insulate retail banking from problems in banks’ investment divisions.
• Banks are not being required to hold sufficient liquidity to allow them to meet customers’ demands for cash in all scenarios.
• Banks’ reliance on each other still leaves a systemic risk for the banking system as a whole.
• Fading memories of the crisis are causing urgency to tackle its underlying problems to diminish.
• Problems may be brewing in less regulated parts of the banking world, such as the growing banking sector in China.
The following articles look at the lessons of the banking crisis – those that have been learned and those that have not. They look at the measures put in place and assess whether they are sufficient.
Lehman Brothers collapse, five years on: ‘We had almost no control’ The Guardian, Larry Elliott and Jill Treanor (13/9/13)
Lehman Brothers collapse: five years on, we’re still feeling the shockwaves The Guardian, Larry Elliott (13/9/13)
Five years after Lehman, could a collapse happen all over again? The Observer, Larry Elliott and Jill Treanor (15/9/13)
Five years after Lehman, all tickety-boo? BBC News, Robert Peston (9/9/13)
What have we learned from the bank crash? Independent, Yalman Onaran, Michael J Moore and Max Abelson (14/9/13)
We’ve let a good financial crisis go to waste since Lehman Brothers collapsed The Telegraph, Jeremy Warner (12/9/13)
The Lehman legacy: Lessons learned? The Economist (9/9/13)
The dangers of debt: Lending weight The Economist (14/9/13)
The Lehman anniversary: Five years in charts The Economist (14/9/13)
- Why did Lehman Brothers collapse?
- Explain the role of the US sub-prime mortgage market in the global financial crisis of 2007/8.
- In the context of banking, what is meant by (a) capital adequacy; (b) risk-based capital adequacy ratios; (c) leverage; (d) leverage ratios?
- Explain the Basel III rules on (a) risk-based capital adequacy (see the textbook and the chart above); (b) non-risk-based leverage (introduced in 2013: see here for details).
- Explain and comment on the following statement by Adair Turner: ‘We created an over-leveraged financial system and an over-leveraged real economy. We created a system such that even if the direct cost of bank rescue was zero, the impact of their near-failure on the economy was vast.’
- Under what circumstances might the global financial system face a similar crisis to that of 2007/8 at some point in the future?
- Why is there an underlying conflict between increasing banks’ required capital adequacy and ensuring a sufficient supply of credit to consumers and business? What multiplier effects are likely to occur from an increase in the capital adequacy ratio?
Today (16/6/11) in Greece, the Prime Minister is trying to form a new government that will help the country tackle its large and growing debts. Austerity measures have been put in place by the Greek government and these cuts and subsequent job losses (unemployment now stands at 15.9%) have resulted in massive riots.
Critics of the eurozone and Greek membership are suggesting that the price Greece has to pay to remain a member might be too high. Billions of euros have already been given to the bankrupt country and yet it seems to have made little difference – more money is now needed, but Finance Ministers have so far been unable to agree on how best to finance another bailout. These concerns have adversely affected financial markets, as investors sell their shares in light of the economic concerns surrounding Greece. The trends in financial markets over recent weeks suggest a growing feeling that Greece may default on its debt.
If an agreement isn’t reached between European leaders and/or Greece doesn’t accept the terms, then it could spell even more trouble and not just for the Greek economy and the eurozone. Banks across Europe have lent money to Greece and if an agreement isn’t reached, then this will mean losses for the private sector. Whilst these losses may be manageable, further trouble may arise due to contagion. Other countries with substantial debts, including Spain, Ireland and Portugal could mean a significant increase in these potential losses.
As the crisis in Greece continues, doubts remain over whether the European leaders even know how to deal with the crisis and this creates a lack of confidence in the markets. Activities over the coming weeks will play a large part in the future of Greece’s eurozone membership, trends in financial markets and the direction of the UK economy. The following articles consider Greece’s debt crisis.
Greece debt crisis sends financial markets reeling BBC News (16/6/11)
Euro slumps vs Swissie, Greece intensifies concern Reuters (16/6/11)
EU and IMF agree Greek debt deal Financial Times, Peter Spiegel (16/6/11)
Greece crisis: Commissioners fear ‘future of Eurozone’ BBC News, Joe Lynam (15/6/11)
Stocks slump as Greece crisis turns violent Bloomberg Business Week, Pan Pylas (15/6/11)
Euro slides as Greek default fears deepen Financial Times, Peter Garnham (16/6/11)
Germany insists all of EU must pay for Greece bailout Guardian, Ian Traynor (15/6/11)
US stocks slump on US, Greek woes Associated Press (16/6/11)
More time to argue about Greece BBC News, Stephanie Flanders (16/6/11)
Greece: Eurozone ministers delay decision on vital loan BBC News (20/6/11)
Greece crisis: Revolution in the offing? BBC News, Gavin Hewitt (19/6/11)
Greece crisis: Not Europe’s Lehman (it could be worse) BBC News, Robert Peston (20/6/11)
Greek debt crisis: eurozone ministers delay decision on €12bn lifeline Guardian, Ian Traynor (20/6/11)
Eurozone must act before Greek crisis leads to global meltdown, IMF warns Guardian, Larry Elliott (20/6/11)
Greece: Private-sector voluntary aid may be impossible BBC News, Robert Peston (21/6/11)
Greece crisis and the best way to cook a lobster BBC News, Stephanie Flanders (22/6/11)
- What is meant by contagion and why is this a potential problem?
- What are the options open to European leaders to finance the bail out?
- If an agreement is not reached or Greece do no accept the terms, how might the UK economy be affected?
- What has been the impact of recent events in Greece and Europe on financial markets and currencies across the world? Explain your answer.
- Why are critics suggesting that the price of Greece remaining in the Eurozone might be too high? If Greece was not a member state what would it mean it could do differently to help it deal with its mounting debts?
President Obama has proposed a major reform of the US banking system. This follows on from the proposed levy to be imposed on banks’ assets announced a few days ago (see “We want our money back and we’re going to get it”).
There are two elements to the new proposals. The first is to limit the size of banks’ market share. Currently, banks’ deposits are not permitted to exceed 10% of total retail deposits in the USA. This 10% limit would be extended to cover wholesale deposits and other liabilities. The idea is to reduce concentration and increase competition. At present the largest four banks hold over half the total assets of banks in the USA.
The second element involves separating casino banking from retail banking. This would be achieved by barring retail banks from owning or investing in private equity or hedge funds or from engaging in ‘proprietary trading operations’. As the second BBC article below states:
Proprietary trading involves a firm making bets on financial markets with its own money, rather just than carrying out a trade for a client in which only the client’s money is at risk.
This comes close to restoring the Glass-Steagall Act, which was repealed in 1999. The Act, which was passed in 1933 in the wake of the 1929 Wall Street cash and the subsequent Great Depression, separated commercial banking and investment banking. It was designed to prevent customers’ deposits being exposed to the riskier activities of investment banking.
What have been the reactions to President Obama’s announcement? Are these reactions justified? Will the proposals prevent another banking crisis and credit crunch? The following articles explore these questions.
Obama hammers the banks Financial Times, Tom Braithwaite and Francesco Guerrera (22/1/10)
Obama pushes new bank regulation (including video) BBC News (21/1/10)
Q&A: Obama’s bank curbs BBC News, Martin Webber (21/1/10)
Obama announces dramatic crackdown on Wall Street banks (including video) Guardian, Jill Treanor (21/1/10)
Barack Obama bank reforms: Trying to fix a broker society Telegraph, Louise Armitstead and Helia Ebrahimi (23/1/10)
Glass-Steagall lite The Economist (22/1/10)
Obama’s Plan Finally Attacks “Too Big to Fail” The Huffington Post, Neil K. Shenai (21/1/10)
Obama Sizes Handcuffs For Banks Forbes, Liz Moyer (21/1/10)
Obama’s Showdown With Wall Street Forbes, Richard Murphy (22/1/10)
President Obama shows the way Independent (23/1/10)
Wall Street’s $26m lobbyists gear up to fight Obama banks reform The Observer, Andrew Clark (24/1/10)
Obama’s drawn first blood – now it’s the UK’s turn The Observer, Ruth Sunderland (24/1/10)
Gordon Brown to push for ‘Tobin tax’ after Wall Street crackdown Guardian, Larry Elliott and Jill Treanor (22/1/10)
Myners: UK does not need to copy Obama banking reforms Guardian, Andrew Clark, Jill Treanor, Paul Owen (22/1/10)
Debate on London’s banking system The Observer, Will Hutton and Boris Johnson (24/1/10)
What Obama’s bank reforms really mean BBC News blogs, Peston’s Picks, Robert Peston (22/1/10)
Davos 2010: Central bankers seethe behind closed doors BBC News, Tim Weber (29/1/10)
- What are the arguments for and against separating retail banking from the more risky elements of investment banking?
- Should banks be allowed to fail? Explain your answer and whether it is necessary to distinguish different types of banks.
- Would putting a limit on the market share of banks prevent them from achieving full economies of scale?
- Why did banking shares fall after President Obama’s announcement? Was this a ‘good sign’ or a ‘bad sign’?
- What is meant by the ‘broker-dealer’ function of banks? Explain each of the specific types of broker-dealer function.
- Compare recent UK measures to control banks with those in the USA.
During his lifetime Galbraith warned extensively of the problems likely to be associated with financial excesses, and if alive today would almost certainly allow himself a ‘told you so’ moment. He was a lifelong liberal who argued that capitalism was inherently a fragile and unstable system. So what relevance does his work have to the current financial crash?
Galbraith saw this coming Guardian (15/10/08)
In praise of …The Great Crash 1929 Guardian (15/10/08)
||Write a short paragraph summarising Galbraith’s life and work.
||Assess the extent to which his arguments in relation to the fragility of the financial system are still relevant today.
||Galbraith commented that all stockmarket bubbles exhibit “seemingly imaginative, currently lucrative, and eventually disastrous innovation in financial structures“. Discuss the extent to which this kind of innovation (e.g. derivatives and sub-prime mortgages) may have been responsible for the current financial crisis.
The Office of Fair Trading (OFT) is to set up an investigation into the reality of ‘free banking’ to establish whether greater transparency in charging would benefit consumers. The articles linked to below consider the scope of this investigation and look at what some consider the ‘myth’ of free banking.
OFT probe into bank charges could mean end of ‘free banking’ The Scotsman (27/4/07)
‘Free’ banking could end as overdraft charges challenged Guardian (27/4/07)
Watchdog probes cost of banking BBC News Online (27/4/07)
Charges inquiry may spell end of free banking Telegraph (28/4/07)
OFT considers ending ‘free’ banking Times Online (27/4/07)
Q&A: Banking investigation and you BBC News Online (26/4/07)
Calling banks’ bluff BBC News Online – Robert Peston blog (26/4/07)
Free banking ‘myth’ to be probed Guardian (26/4/07)
||Explain the reason why some people consider free banking to be a ‘myth’.
||Examine the likely impact of the market structure in the market for banking on the level of competition.
||Assess two policies that the government could implement to ensure that consumers get a fairer deal from their banks.