ROSS GITTINS. Long way to go to get banks back in their box (SMH 17.9.2018)

Have we learnt from the mistakes of the global financial crisis, now 10 years ago? Yes, but not nearly as much as we should have.  

Of course, the answer is different for the Americans and the other major advanced economies to what it is for us, who managed to avoid bank failures and the Great Recession.

Globally, much has been done under the Basel rules to strengthen requirements for banks to hold more capital and liquidity, reducing the likelihood of them getting themselves into difficulties.

It would be naive, however, to imagine this has eliminated the possibility of any future financial crisis. Recurring financial crises are a feature of capitalist economies through the centuries.

All we can do is work on reducing their frequency and severity. On that score, the rich countries could have done a better job of rationalising the division of responsibility between the various buck-passing authorities supposed to be regulating their financial system.

The root cause of the GFC was ideological: the belief that the more lightly regulated the banks and other financial players were, the better they’d serve the wider economy’s interests, allied with the belief that their greater freedom wouldn’t tempt them to take excessive risks because that would be contrary to their interests.

Ten years since Lehman Brothers collapsed, we look at the subsequent global financial crisis that changed the world economy.

Wrong. This badly misread the perverse incentives bank executives faced – heads I win big bonuses; tails my shareholders do their dough – and the way the heat of competition can induce business people to do things they know they shouldn’t, not to mention the “moral hazard” of knowing that, should the worst come to the worst, the government will have no choice but to bail us out.

As actually happened. In the North Atlantic economies, politicians and central bankers did the right thing in rescuing failing banks. Had they not, the whole financial system would have collapsed and the loss of wealth and employment would have been many times greater than it was.

But don’t try telling that to a public that watched governments racking up billions in debt to save banks and bankers, who then proceeded to turn out on the street people who could no longer afford the mortgages they should never have been granted.

The US authorities’ mistake was failing to draw a clear distinction between saving banks to protect their customers and stop the system collapsing, and punishing the failed banks’ managers and shareholders for screwing up.

Why didn’t they? In short, because the banks are too powerful politically.

Which brings us to Australia’s response to the GFC and how we escaped the Great Recession. Our big banks didn’t fall over because our econocrats never believed the banks wouldn’t be silly enough to take risks that could endanger their survival. Our banks didn’t buy toxic assets because our prudential supervisors wouldn’t let ‘em.

That didn’t stop the GFC dealing a blow to business and consumer confidence, such that real gross domestic product contracted by 0.5 per cent in December quarter 2008. That we avoided recession is thanks to the quick action of the Reserve Bank in slashing interest rates and the Rudd government in applying huge fiscal stimulus, which stopped the economy unravelling.

At another level, however, the econocrats did believe the banks should be lightly regulated in their relations with customers, and could be trusted not to mistreat them. Outfits such as the Australian Securities and Investments Commission had their funding cut and were given the nod not to be overactive.

The absence of a crash meant our governments didn’t learn that market forces can cause, as well as limit, the mistreatment of customers.

The absence of a crash meant our governments didn’t learn that, in the non-textbook world, market forces can cause, as well as limit, the mistreatment of customers. Our own banks’ great political influence reinforced this naivety, prompting governments to wave aside the mounting evidence of bank misconduct and the public’s mounting disquiet and distrust.

So, in a sense, the banking royal commission is the product of our earlier failure to learn what we should have from the GFC.

But there’s a much broader lesson we’ve yet to learn from the crisis, one that applies to all the advanced economies. It’s that the banking and “financial services” sector is far bigger than we need, is bloated by rent-seeking, involves many times more trading between banks (a form of gambling) than trading between banks and real-economy customers, and is thus a waste of economic resources.

When financial services’ share of our economy (and most other advanced countries’) was expanding rapidly in the decades preceding the crisis, economists told us we were benefiting from financial innovation and advances in the management of financial risk.

The GFC revealed that rationale as about 95 per cent bulldust. To misquote Keynes, the economy would be better off if most of the people making big bucks in finance got useful jobs such as being dentists.

Ross Gittins is the Herald’s economics editor.

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