Tuesday, 29 May 2012

"Heads I win, tails you lose."

I was at a private lunch in the City some 15 years ago discussing whether hedge fund investments should be considered a new and distinct asset class. A very prominent hedge fund trader was asked his opinion. Surprisingly, he said that hedge funds were less a new method for investment, than a new method for higher remuneration. The appeal of hedge funds was in the outsize fees rewarding the fund managers rather than any superior returns for investors.

I was reminded of that lunch again this morning by two pieces in my inbox. The first referenced a paper from the Bank of England estimating the public subsidy of the UK's largest banks at more than £220 billion during the past couple years. These banks secure a funding premium in wholesale and deposit markets from the implicit state guarantee of obligations attaching to their too big to fail status. The subsidy distorts competition and risk taking, storing up even more future draws on beleaguered taxpayers. The second was a blogpost summarising recent comments of a Bank of England executive to the effect that all the cost savings generated by technology advances and automation in the banking sector had been paid away in increased bonuses and remuneration. IT efficiency gains fund bonus payments. The financial sector's appetite for technology investment is not driven by a desire to provide more efficient services, but to secure ever larger remuneration packages. In fact, rapid financial innovation and technology transformation has led to less efficient intermediation if evaluated on a cost basis.

Regulation has had a pernicious effect in driving technology and complexity. As Chris Skinner observes,
Put another way, in the first iteration of the Basel Accord there were seven risk metrics requiring seven calculations; by the time we get around to implementing Basel III, over 200,000 risk categories will require over 200 million calculations.
At some point policy makers will need to turn their efforts from reinforcing and bailing out the bankers who use any and every opportunity to take public support as private bonuses and instead evaluate much simpler, lower cost models of financial intermediation likely to yield domestic investment in domestic businesses and assets.

I can almost hear the shouts of "socialist" from the usual defenders of banks and markets. I am not advocating state nationalistion of banks, but state withdrawal of explicit and implicit bank subsidies.

It is a conservative principle that the state should intervene when markets fail. If the banking system has failed (and it has) and requires a taxpayer subsidy to continue to operate (which it does), then conservative principles dictate that the state must intervene to secure a resolution in the public interest. More of the same is not a conservative policy, but social welfare for bankers.

We currently have a system of excess regulatory complexity, hidden market distortions and public subsidies. Moving away from the status quo requires state action to identify and reduce subsidy through promotion of business models that are simpler, more transparent and more directly aimed at securing public benefit.