Reviewed: The Bankers’ New Clothes by Anat Admati and Martin Hellwig

Profits of doom.

The Bankers’ New Clothes: What’s Wrong with Banking and What to Do About It
Anat Admati and Martin Hellwig
Princeton University Press, 392pp, £19.95

The Federal Reserve and the Financial Crisis
Ben S Bernanke
Princeton University Press, 144pp, £13.95

Historians will not be forgiving of the past 30 years. Western governments, with Britain in the vanguard, indulged an explosion in bank balance sheets supported by declining levels of equity and by borrowing that ran into many trillions of dollars, euros and pounds. This created a long and apparently impregnable private-sector-led boom; but it was a mountain of lending underwritten by a molehill of equity. Bankers claimed that they had invented new tools to handle what previous generations would have regarded as impossible risks. They were wrong. The inevitable exposure of the system’s fragility has left the world – and Britain in particular – saddled with a combination of private debt and crippled banks that, even if policy were clever and well resourced, which it is not, would take years to restore to something like normality. Instead, we have austerity and a long, barely contained depression. Never have so few lent so much to so many so recklessly, escaping the consequences while imposing hardship on others.

This raises fundamental questions about the sheer unfairness of capitalism and its vulnerability to those at the top creating dynastic personal fortunes. Nor could bankers and the high priests of modern finance – hedge-fund managers and private equity partners – ever have pulled this off without an accompanying ideology that vaunted the efficiency of private markets animated by personal selfishness and was self-serving nonsense. This was propagated by powerful, privately owned media cheerleaders, feeding off well-financed neoconservative think tanks, which persuaded the gullible public that this was the only way that wealth and jobs could be generated.

Given the scale of what has happened, the response from civil society and the left has been feeble. True, there have been groups such as UK Uncut and the Occupy movement. But even now, the left continues to take aim at the wrong targets. As I was writing this review, Cypriot banks, vastly overborrowed (mainly from the Russian superrich, allegedly laundering their money) and supported by minimal amounts of equity, were repeating the drama of RBS and Lehman Brothers. If anything was to go wrong with the assets against which they had directly or indirectly lent the borrowed money, there was too little equity to absorb the impact. Greece’s partial write-down of its debts in which Cyprus’s banks had invested was such an event, and inevitably a crisis ensued.

Yet, with dismal regularity, leading left-of-centre commentators – indistinguishable in their analysis from their counterparts on the right – decided that the culprit was not the structure of modern banking but the euro, austerity and the flint-eyed German government. In an alternative world of floating exchange rates and governments with an unfettered capacity to borrow and print money, they argued, the crisis would have passed fairly painlessly. This is yet more self-serving tosh. It is the bastardisation of Keynesian economics and the infantilisation of liberal-left thinking – a refusal to think hard about capitalism in favour of taking refuge in anti-austerity slogans and Ukip-style populism. With floating exchange rates, Cyprus, given the epic mistakes of its banks, would now be confronting hyperinflation as its currency collapsed, or else the takeover and rundown of its banks by the IMF. Rants about the euro or the reluctance of German taxpayers to foot the bill for the crisis dodge the issue. The pressing question is how western banking is to be reinvented and restored to health – in Cyprus, Britain and elsewhere – so as to relieve economies of the crushing legacy of private debt.

One of the most important contributions to answering these questions is a new book co-written by the leading German economist Martin Hellwig and his US counterpart Anat Admati. The Bankers’ New Clothes is a lucid exposition of the intellectual falsehoods deployed by banks to justify the ways in which they went about growing their business beyond any reasonable assessment of risk in the run-up to the crisis of 2008 and which they continue to peddle today.

Admati and Hellwig cut through the debates about whether it was too little or too much regulation that was to blame, whether central banks could and should have acted faster, and the rights and wrongs of securitisation or separating commercial and investment banking, and go to the heart of the matter. Western banks, they argue, borrowed far too much with far too little equity in their balance sheets to act as a buffer if things went wrong in any part of their business, from trading on their own account in the multitrillion-dollar derivatives markets to extravagant and reckless lending on real estate.

Less than 70 years ago, banks operated with between 20 and 30 per cent of their liabilities as equity; by 2008, that had shrunk to just 3 per cent. They believed that they had invented instruments that removed the risk, allowing them to run their banks with a tenth of the buffer they had before. It could only lead to disaster.

Admati’s and Hellwig’s constant refrain is that banks are no different from any other organisation or individual. In effect, managements and shareholders elected to run banks as if they were homeowners with mortgages worth 97 per cent of the value of their home, with only 3 per cent of equity. This makes sense when house prices are rising but it will only take a 3 per cent fall in house prices to wipe out your stake. Homeowners might take the risk once in their lives and hope as they steadily pay off the mortgage that any fall in house prices could be ridden out. However, banks adopted this as their standard approach, running their affairs on the finest of margins. British banks’ total liabilities are worth just less than five times our GDP – but supported by tiny amounts of equity.

Admati and Hellwig challenge all the bankers’ justifications for their behaviour. Having more equity is neither more expensive nor a deterrent to new lending. It has only been possible to grow balance sheets to such a gargantuan size with so little equity because banks have known that, in extremis, the risks would be underwritten by the state – either directly by insuring our deposits with them, or indirectly by bailing them out.

Having little equity is at the core of the one-way bet that the bankers have made: when times are good, they make fabulous profits and bonuses; when times are bad, the state picks up the pieces. As a result of this explicit subsidy and the state’s promise of underwriting the banks’ risks, banks never had to worry about their solvency: that was guaranteed. All they had to concern themselves with was their liquidity – that come what may they have enough cash to give depositors if they withdrew it. Here, central banks, with their capacity to print legal tender, enter the picture. As long as they are proactive enough to generate the cash that banks need in a crisis and at sufficient scale, through being the lender of last resort, then, with solvency underwritten and liquidity on tap, even the worst banking crisis can be managed.

Admati and Hellwig think that this is economically inefficient and unfair. After all, it is not as though periodic financial crises don’t impose huge costs on society. One could go further still. If banking relies entirely on having the state as a backstop, then society can reasonably ask for some quid pro quo in return.

One of the bitterest aspects of the lending boom of the past 30 years is that Britain has so little to show for it. We don’t have great industries or great infrastructure. Instead, we have loaded households and many firms with insupportable levels of debt. Even in good times, the banks have been unable or unwilling to support innovation, business-building and investment.

Instead, their focus has been on property lending or funding takeovers by private equity partners of perfectly good companies that did not need to be overwhelmed with debt to enrich their new owners. If more people understood what has happened and why, the outrage and clamour for change would be irresistible.

The trouble is that too few make the effort to understand and those who do are deterred by the apparent complexity of modern finance, or the unwillingness of so many practitioners and top officials to be honest about its deficiencies. In this respect, a collection of Ben Bernanke’s lectures on the role of the US Federal Reserve in the financial crisis is a classic of the genre – uninquiring, complacent and, unless you are fascinated by the minutiae of central banking, unilluminating.

Yet he is the chairman of the Federal Reserve, the most powerful central bank in the world. For Bernanke, financial crises are like hurricanes: they are just part of the climate of capitalism. If that is right, then it is imperative to have a watchful central bank led by a resourceful chairman such as Bernanke; someone who is ready to pump trillions of dollars into the system when the hurricanes occur, in order to provide crucial liquidity. And with that, the hurricane should pass.

In fairness to Bernanke, he operates in an intellectual and political environment in which suspicion of the state is so endemic that some on the Republican right want to abolish the central bank altogether. His lectures were, in part, a response to that crazed tendency, explaining in simple language why central banks’ capacity to provide the system with cash when it is in crisis is so crucial – and how the Fed set about doing that in the most recent crisis.

Bernanke skirts around the issues raised by Admati and Hellwig. Yet they are fundamental – not just to the stability of the financial system but for the question of how capitalism is to be better organised (which is surely the issue, more than any other, that the New Statesman needs to address in its centenary year).

We need banks to be run with more equity. We need them to accept that their decisions about how much they lend, to whom and on what terms have profound implications for our economy and society. That needs to be part of a wider reframing of the principles on which firms are constituted. Remuneration needs to return to earth. We need careful economic policies that offer the prospect of a sustained increase in demand and prices over time, gradually inflating away the real value of debt. Excessive private debt does not just imprison economies – it suffocates personal lives.

All of this should be part of a wider debate about what constitutes a good society. If a potential Labour government is to be successful, it will be because it is riding an intellectual tide that answers these questions. The New Statesman is one of the few catalysts for developing ideas that we have. The next two years are arguably the most important in its history: I hope it rises to the task.

Will Hutton’s most recent book is “Them and Us: Changing Britain –Why We Need a Fair Society” (Abacus, £10.99)

Photograph: Getty Images

This article first appeared in the 12 April 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Centenary Special Issue

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The Brexit Beartraps, #2: Could dropping out of the open skies agreement cancel your holiday?

Flying to Europe is about to get a lot more difficult.

So what is it this time, eh? Brexit is going to wipe out every banana planet on the entire planet? Brexit will get the Last Night of the Proms cancelled? Brexit will bring about World War Three?

To be honest, I think we’re pretty well covered already on that last score, but no, this week it’s nothing so terrifying. It’s just that Brexit might get your holiday cancelled.

What are you blithering about now?

Well, only if you want to holiday in Europe, I suppose. If you’re going to Blackpool you’ll be fine. Or Pakistan, according to some people...

You’re making this up.

I’m honestly not, though we can’t entirely rule out the possibility somebody is. Last month Michael O’Leary, the Ryanair boss who attracts headlines the way certain other things attract flies, warned that, “There is a real prospect... that there are going to be no flights between the UK and Europe for a period of weeks, months beyond March 2019... We will be cancelling people’s holidays for summer of 2019.”

He’s just trying to block Brexit, the bloody saboteur.

Well, yes, he’s been quite explicit about that, and says we should just ignore the referendum result. Honestly, he’s so Remainiac he makes me look like Dan Hannan.

But he’s not wrong that there are issues: please fasten your seatbelt, and brace yourself for some turbulence.

Not so long ago, aviation was a very national sort of a business: many of the big airports were owned by nation states, and the airline industry was dominated by the state-backed national flag carriers (British Airways, Air France and so on). Since governments set airline regulations too, that meant those airlines were given all sorts of competitive advantages in their own country, and pretty much everyone faced barriers to entry in others. 

The EU changed all that. Since 1994, the European Single Aviation Market (ESAM) has allowed free movement of people and cargo; established common rules over safety, security, the environment and so on; and ensured fair competition between European airlines. It also means that an AOC – an Air Operator Certificate, the bit of paper an airline needs to fly – from any European country would be enough to operate in all of them. 

Do we really need all these acronyms?

No, alas, we need more of them. There’s also ECAA, the European Common Aviation Area – that’s the area ESAM covers; basically, ESAM is the aviation bit of the single market, and ECAA the aviation bit of the European Economic Area, or EEA. Then there’s ESAA, the European Aviation Safety Agency, which regulates, well, you can probably guess what it regulates to be honest.

All this may sound a bit dry-

It is.

-it is a bit dry, yes. But it’s also the thing that made it much easier to travel around Europe. It made the European aviation industry much more competitive, which is where the whole cheap flights thing came from.

In a speech last December, Andrew Haines, the boss of Britain’s Civil Aviation Authority said that, since 2000, the number of destinations served from UK airports has doubled; since 1993, fares have dropped by a third. Which is brilliant.

Brexit, though, means we’re probably going to have to pull out of these arrangements.

Stop talking Britain down.

Don’t tell me, tell Brexit secretary David Davis. To monitor and enforce all these international agreements, you need an international court system. That’s the European Court of Justice, which ministers have repeatedly made clear that we’re leaving.

So: last March, when Davis was asked by a select committee whether the open skies system would persist, he replied: “One would presume that would not apply to us” – although he promised he’d fight for a successor, which is very reassuring. 

We can always holiday elsewhere. 

Perhaps you can – O’Leary also claimed (I’m still not making this up) that a senior Brexit minister had told him that lost European airline traffic could be made up for through a bilateral agreement with Pakistan. Which seems a bit optimistic to me, but what do I know.

Intercontinental flights are still likely to be more difficult, though. Since 2007, flights between Europe and the US have operated under a separate open skies agreement, and leaving the EU means we’re we’re about to fall out of that, too.  

Surely we’ll just revert to whatever rules there were before.

Apparently not. Airlines for America – a trade body for... well, you can probably guess that, too – has pointed out that, if we do, there are no historic rules to fall back on: there’s no aviation equivalent of the WTO.

The claim that flights are going to just stop is definitely a worst case scenario: in practice, we can probably negotiate a bunch of new agreements. But we’re already negotiating a lot of other things, and we’re on a deadline, so we’re tight for time.

In fact, we’re really tight for time. Airlines for America has also argued that – because so many tickets are sold a year or more in advance – airlines really need a new deal in place by March 2018, if they’re to have faith they can keep flying. So it’s asking for aviation to be prioritised in negotiations.

The only problem is, we can’t negotiate anything else until the EU decides we’ve made enough progress on the divorce bill and the rights of EU nationals. And the clock’s ticking.

This is just remoaning. Brexit will set us free.

A little bit, maybe. CAA’s Haines has also said he believes “talk of significant retrenchment is very much over-stated, and Brexit offers potential opportunities in other areas”. Falling out of Europe means falling out of European ownership rules, so itcould bring foreign capital into the UK aviation industry (assuming anyone still wants to invest, of course). It would also mean more flexibility on “slot rules”, by which airports have to hand out landing times, and which are I gather a source of some contention at the moment.

But Haines also pointed out that the UK has been one of the most influential contributors to European aviation regulations: leaving the European system will mean we lose that influence. And let’s not forget that it was European law that gave passengers the right to redress when things go wrong: if you’ve ever had a refund after long delays, you’ve got the EU to thank.

So: the planes may not stop flying. But the UK will have less influence over the future of aviation; passengers might have fewer consumer rights; and while it’s not clear that Brexit will mean vastly fewer flights, it’s hard to see how it will mean more, so between that and the slide in sterling, prices are likely to rise, too.

It’s not that Brexit is inevitably going to mean disaster. It’s just that it’ll take a lot of effort for very little obvious reward. Which is becoming something of a theme.

Still, we’ll be free of those bureaucrats at the ECJ, won’t be?

This’ll be a great comfort when we’re all holidaying in Grimsby.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Brexit. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.