Tag: Mervyn King

The governor of the Bank of England, Mervyn King, made an important speech in New York on 25th October. The Governor’s speech was a wide-ranging discussion of the banking system. At the heart of it was a fundamental economic concept: market failure. The market failure that King was referring to stems from the maturity transformation which occurs when banks borrow short, say through our savings or wholesale funds from other financial institutions, and then lend long as is the case with mortgages. Of course, the positive outcome of this maturity transformation is that it does allow for funds to be pooled and this, in turn, enables long-term finance, something which is incredibly important for business and households. However, King believes that banks have become too heavily reliant on short-term debt to finance lending. Indeed he went so far as to describe their levels of leverage as ‘extraordinary’ and ‘absurd’. He argued that such a system can only work with the ‘implicit support of the taxpayer’.

In elaborating on the market failure arising from maturity transformation in today’s financial system, King notes

…the scale of maturity transformation undertaken today produces private benefits and social costs. We have seen from the experience of first Iceland, and now Ireland, the results that can follow from allowing a banking system to become too large relative to national output without having first solved the “too important to fail” problem.

In the speech, King considers a range of remedies to reduce the risks to the financial system. These include: (i) imposing a tax on banks’ short-term borrowing which could, to use the economic terminology, help internalise the external cost arising from maturity transformation; (ii) placing limits on banks’ leverage and setting capital requirements as outlined in the recent Basel III framework (for a discussion on Basel III see Basel III – tough new regulations or letting the banks off lightly?; (iii) functional separation of bank activities to safeguard those activities critical to the economy. King argues that whatever remedies we choose they should be guided by one fundamental principle: “ensure that the costs of maturity transformation – the costs of periodic financial crises – fall on those who enjoy the benefits of maturity transformation – the reduced cost of financial intermediation”.

Mervyn King’s speech makes considerable reference to our banks’ balance sheets. So to conclude this piece we consider the latest numbers on the liabilities of British banks. At the end of each month, in its publication Monetary and Financial Statistics, the Bank of England publishes figures on the assets and liabilities of Britain’s banking institutions or ‘MFIs’ (monetary and financial institutions). The latest release showed that British banks had total liabilities of some £8.15 trillion at the end of September 2010. To put it into perspective that’s equivalent to around 5½ times the country’s annual Gross Domestic Product. Of this sum, £3.75 trillion was classified as Sterling-denominated liabilities, so largely reflecting operations here in the UK, while £4.39 trillion was foreign currency liabilities reflecting the extent of over-seas operations.

The Sterling liabilities of our financial institutions are dominated by two principal deposit types: sight deposits and time deposits. The former are deposits that can be withdrawn on demand without penalty whereas time deposits require notice of withdrawals. Sterling sight deposits at the end of September totalled £1.16 trillion (31% of Sterling liabilities and 80% of annual GDP) while time deposits totalled £1.52 trillion (40% of Sterling liabilities and 105% of annual GDP). The next largest group of deposits are known repos or, to give them their full title, sales and repurchase agreements. Repos are essentially loans, usually fairly short-term, where banks can sell some of their financial assets, such as government debt, to other banks and this can help to ease any shortages in funds. Sterling-denominated repos totalled £197.8 billion at the end of September (8% of Sterling liabilities and 21% of annual GDP).

To conclude, the growth in our banking system’s liabilities has been pretty staggering. Compared with today’s liabilities of nearly £8.15 trillion, liabilities 13 years ago totalled £2.35 trillion. So over this period the banks’ liabilities have risen from a little below 3 times Gross Domestic Product to over 5½ times GDP. That is certainly worthy of analysis.

Mervyn King’s speech
Banking: from Bagehot to Basel, and back again The second Bagehot lecture, New York City (25/10/10)


Mervyn King mobilises his tanks Independent, Ben Chu (26/10/10)
Get tougher on banks, says banking governor Mervyn King’ Daily Mail, Hugo Duncan (26/10/10)
Mervyn King attacks ‘absurd’ bank risk BBC News (26/10/10)
Mervyn King says banking must be reinvented BBC News blogs: Peston’s Picks, Robert Peston (26/10/10)


Data on banks’ liabilities and assets are available from the Bank of England’s statistics publication, Monetary and Financial Statistics (Bankstats) (See Table B1.4.)


  1. What do you understand by the terms: (i) market failure; and (ii) maturity transformation?
  2. What is the external cost identified by Mervyn King arising out of maturity transformation?
  3. What does it mean to internalise an external cost? Can you think of examples from everyday life where attempts are made to do this?
  4. Consider the various ‘remedies’ identified by Mervyn King to reduce the riskiness of our financial system. (You may wish to download the speech using the web link above).
  5. Distinguish between the following deposits: (i) time deposit; (ii) sight deposit; and (iii) repos.

In a speech to Scottish business organisations, Mervyn King, the Governor of the Bank of England, argued that it might be necessary to split banks up. The aim would be to separate the core retail banking business, of receving deposits and lending to individuals and businesses, from the more risky and exotic wholesale acitivites of banks, such as securitisation, speculation and hedging – so-called ‘casino banking’.

Governments around the world, as represented at the G20 meeting at Pittsburg in September, have favoured tougher regulation of banks. But Mervyn King believes that this is not enough. It may not prevent the reckless behaviour that resulted in the credit crunch and bank bailouts by the government. “Never has so much money been owed by so few to so many. And, one might add, so far with little real reform.” And if regulation were to fail and banks were to get into difficulties, what would happen? There would have to be another bailout. As Mervyn King said, “The belief that appropriate regulation can ensure that speculative activities do not result in failures is a delusion.”

There are two key problems.

The first is Goodhart’s Law. If rules are set for bank behaviour, banks may adhere to the letter of the rules, but find ways around them to continue behaving in risky ways. The rules may cease to be a good measure of prudent behaviour.

The second is moral hazard. If banks know that they will be bailed out if they get into difficulties because they are too big to fail, then this encourages them to take the risks. As Mervyn King said in his speech, “The massive support extended to the banking sector around the world, while necessary to avert economic disaster, has created possibly the biggest moral hazard in history. The ‘too important to fail’ problem is too important to ignore.”

So should the banks be split? Is there any likelihood that they will? Or are Mervyn King’s proposals merely another headache for the government? The following articles looks at the issues. The first link below is to his speech.

Speech by Mervyn King, Governor to Scottish business organisations, Edinburgh (20/10/09)
Mervyn King: bail-outs created ‘biggest moral hazard in history’ (including video of part of speech) Telegraph (20/10/09)
Governor warns bank split needed BBC News (20/10/09)
A sombre warning BBC News, Stephanomics (20/10/09)
Alistair Darling rebuffs Mervyn King’s attack over timidity of banking reforms Guardian (21/10/09)
King and Brown in rift over whether to split the banks Independent (22/10/09)
Tucker set to join calls for stricter controls on banks Scotsman (22/10/09)
Testing times for bank regulators Financial Times (21/10/09)
Mervyn King is right – the economy is changing and we’re blindfolded, without a map Telegraph, Edmund Conway (22/10/09)


  1. Explain what is meant by ‘moral hazard’ in the context of bank bailouts. Are the any ways in which banks could be prevented from failing during a crisis without creating a moral hazard?
  2. Does regulation necessarily involve Goodhart’s Law? To what extent is it possible to devise regulation and avoid Goodnart’s Law?
  3. What are the arguments for and against splitting banks’ core business from more risky ‘casino banking’?
  4. Does the separation of retail and investment banking necessarily involve splitting banks into separate organisations? If they are not split, how can the government or central bank underwrite retail banking without underwriting riskier investment banking?