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)
- 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?
- Does regulation necessarily involve Goodhart’s Law? To what extent is it possible to devise regulation and avoid Goodnart’s Law?
- What are the arguments for and against splitting banks’ core business from more risky ‘casino banking’?
- 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?