Watering down Basel III's not a sop to the banks

But it is still a hallmark of some worryingly misguided thinking.

The changes to the Basel III international banking regulations have been widely reported as a sop to financiers. But what actually happened?

The Basel regulations are about the stability of the banking system. When the third Basel accord comes into effect this year, it will introduce strict new requirements how leveraged-up banks can be, as well as mandating that they hold enough liquid assets to cover all of their cash outflows for a month. The idea is that by requiring these safety nets, the amount of revenue banks can make is curtailed, but so too is the risk that they will go belly-up in the event of another crisis.

The problem with Basel III is that reducing the amount of leverage a bank is allowed to use is the same as reducing the number of loans it is allowed to make, assuming its available capital stays the same. Reducing the number of loans is sort of what we don't want to happen, what with much of the developed world still being deep in depression and businesses clinging to survival by the skin of their teeth.

In fact, as the NYT's Andrew Ross Sorkin writes, the chances of a leverage induced crisis are quite low.

The change in Basel has been painted, by none-other than Mervyn King, as a trade-off. We thought that the big risk would be another bust; but now we know the big risk is a dead recovery. So lets water down the regulations. King said:

Since we attach great importance to try to make sure that banks can indeed finance a recovery, it does not make sense to impose a requirement on banks that might damage the recovery.

But the problem is, it's not Basel's leverage requirements that have changed. It's the liquidity ones. And they are a lot more important to implement sooner rather than later.

Leverage requirements are important in case we find ourselves in a situation like 2008, where the value of the assets banks are holding drops precipitously. Banks suddenly find themselves much poorer than they thought they were, and a wave of failures sweeps through the system. But we are a long way from the sort of bubble which is required for leverage requirements to be needed. First we need a recovery.

Liquidity requirements, on the other hand, guard against bank runs. And bank runs are a symptom of lack of faith in the system – something which remains very real today. The dilution of Basel now delays the implementation of those requirements, meaning that the risk of bank runs won't be actively fought until 2019; and it also weakens the very requirements themselves, allowing banks to claim a far larger pool of assets as "liquid capital".

Felix Salmon points out that what's really happening is that Basel III has become the latest in unconventional central bank actions:

The committee has clearly determined that if you’ve run out of ammunition in terms of interest rates and quantitative easing, then when you’re searching around for some other monetary-easing tool, regulations are a reasonable place to look. And I really don’t like that precedent. Monetary policy should be entirely separate from bank regulation, even if central banks should properly perform both roles. With the ink barely dry on the Basel III agreement, now is no time to start diluting it for the sake of some hypothetical temporary future marginal boost to growth.

It's important to point out that the actual changes may not be that bad. Alphaville's Lisa Pollack argues that there's a fair amount of whinging which ignores that the weakened regulations are still perfectly perfectly capable of fighting a liquidity crisis. But the principle of the change is still concerning. Regulators decided what would be the best and safest way of running banks, and then changed their mind based, not on new evidence that they could achieve the same safety with less stringent regulations, but on completely different criteria. That bears the hallmarks of the thinking which got us into this problem in the firs place.

A man walks down the banks of the Rhine in Basel, Switzerland. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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Why the Liberal Democrats by-election surge is not all it seems

The Lib Dems chalked up impressive results in Stoke and Copeland. But just how much of a fight back is it?

By the now conventional post-Brexit logic, Stoke and Copeland ought to have been uniquely inhospitable for the Lib Dems. 

The party lost its deposit in both seats in 2015, and has no representation on either council. So too were the referendum odds stacked against it: in Stoke, the so-called Brexit capital of Britain, 70 per cent of voters backed Leave last June, as did 62 per cent in Copeland. And, as Stephen has written before, the Lib Dems’ mini-revival has so far been most pronounced in affluent, Conservative-leaning areas which swung for remain. 

So what explains the modest – but impressive – surges in their vote share in yesterday’s contests? In Stoke, where they finished fifth in 2015, the party won 9.8 per cent of the vote, up 5.7 percentage points. They also more than doubled their vote share in Copeland, where they beat Ukip for third with 7.3 per cent share of the vote.

The Brexit explanation is a tempting and not entirely invalid one. Each seat’s not insignificant pro-EU minority was more or less ignored by most of the national media, for whom the existence of remainers in what we’re now obliged to call “left-behind Britain” is often a nuance too far. With the Prime Minister Theresa May pushing for a hard Brexit and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn waving it through, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron has made the pro-EU narrative his own. As was the case for Charles Kennedy in the Iraq War years, this confers upon the Lib Dems a status and platform they were denied as the junior partners in coalition. 

While their stance on Europe is slowly but surely helping the Lib Dems rebuild their pre-2015 demographic core - students, graduates and middle-class professionals employed in the public sector – last night’s results, particularly in Stoke, also give them reason for mild disappointment. 

In Stoke, campaign staffers privately predicted they might manage to beat Ukip for second or third place. The party ran a full campaign for the first time in several years, and canvassing returns suggested significant numbers of Labour voters, mainly public sector workers disenchanted with Corbyn’s stance on Europe, were set to vote Lib Dem. Nor were they intimidated by the Brexit factor: recent council by-elections in Sunderland and Rotheram, which both voted decisively to leave, saw the Lib Dems win seats for the first time on massive swings. 

So it could well be argued that their candidate, local cardiologist Zulfiqar Ali, ought to have done better. Staffordshire University’s campus, which Tim Farron visited as part of a voter registration drive, falls within the seat’s boundaries. Ali, unlike his Labour competitor Gareth Snell and Ukip leader Paul Nuttall, didn’t have his campaign derailed or disrupted by negative media attention. Unlike the Tory candidate Jack Brereton, he had the benefit of being older than 25. And, like 15 per cent of the electorate, he is of Kashmiri origin.  

In public and in private, Lib Dems say the fact that Stoke was a two-horse race between Labour and Ukip ultimately worked to their disadvantage. The prospect of Nuttall as their MP may well have been enough to convince a good number of the Labour waverers mentioned earlier to back Snell. 

With his party hovering at around 10 per cent in national polls, last night’s results give Farron cause for optimism – especially after their near-wipeout in 2015. But it’s easy to forget the bigger picture in all of this. The party have chalked up a string of impressive parliamentary by-election results – second in Witney, a spectacular win in Richmond Park, third in Sleaford and Copeland, and a strong fourth in Stoke. 

However, most of these results represent a reversion to, or indeed an underperformance compared to, the party’s pre-2015 norm. With the notable exception of Richmond’s Sarah Olney, who only joined the Lib Dems after the last general election, these candidates haven’t - or the Lib Dem vote - come from nowhere. Zulfiqar Ali previously sat on the council in Stoke and had fought the seat before, and Witney’s Liz Leffman and Sleaford’s Ross Pepper are both popular local councillors. And for all the excited commentary about Richmond, it was, of course, held by the Lib Dems for 13 years before Zac Goldsmith won it for the Tories in 2010. 

The EU referendum may have given the Lib Dems a new lease of life, but, as their #LibDemFightback trope suggests, they’re best understood as a revanchist, and not insurgent, force. Much has been said about Brexit realigning our politics, but, for now at least, the party’s new normal is looking quite a lot like the old one.