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.

Photo: Getty
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The three big mistakes the government has made in its Brexit talks

Nicola Sturgeon fears that the UK has no negotiating position at all. It's worse than she thinks. 

It’s fair to say that the first meeting of the government’s Brexit ministers and the leaders of the devolved legislatures did not go well.

Scotland’s Nicola Sturgeon told reporters outside that it had all been “deeply frustrating”, and that it was impossible for her to undermine the United Kingdom’s negotiating position as “I can’t undermine something that doesn’t exist, and at the moment it doesn’t seem to me like there is a UK negotiating strategy”.

To which cynical observers might say: she would, wouldn’t she? It’s in Sturgeon’s interest to paint the Westminster government as clueless and operating in a way that puts Scotland’s interests at risk. Maybe so, but Carwyn Jones, her Welsh opposite number, tends to strike a more conciliatory figure at these events – he’s praised both George Osborne and David Cameron in the past.

So it’s hard not to be alarmed at his statement to the press that there is still “huge uncertainty” about what the British government’s negotiating position. Even Arlene Foster, the first minister in Northern Ireland, whose party, the DUP, is seen as an increasingly reliable ally for the Conservative government, could only really volunteer that “we’re in a negotiation and we will be in a negotiation and it will be complex”.

All of which makes Jeremy Corbyn’s one-liner in the Commons today that the government is pursuing neither hard Brexit nor soft Brexit but “chaotic Brexit” ring true.

It all adds to a growing suspicion that the government’s negotiating strategy might be, as Jacqui Smith once quipped of Ed Miliband’s policy review, something of “a pregnant panda – it's been a very long time in the making and no one's quite sure if there's anything in there anyway”.

That’s not the case – but the reality is not much more comforting. The government has long believed, as Philip Hammond put when being grilled by the House of Lords on the issue:

"There's an intrinsic tension here between democratic accountability of the government and effective negotiation with a third party. Our paramount objective must be to get a good deal for Britain. I am afraid will not be achieved by spelling out our negotiating strategy."

That was echoed by Theresa May in response to Corbyn’s claim that the government has no plan for Brexit:

 “We have a plan, which is not to give out details of the negotiation as they are being negotiated”

Are Hammond and May right? Well, sort of. There is an innate tension between democratic accountability and a good deal, of course. The more is known about what the government’s red lines in negotiations, the higher the price they will have to pay to protect. That’s why, sensibly, Hammond, both as Foreign Secretary during the dying days of David Cameron’s government, and now as Chancellor, has attempted to head off public commitments about the shape of the Brexit deal.

But – and it’s a big but – the government has already shown a great deal of its hand. May made three big reveals about the government’s Brexit strategy it in her conference speech: firstly, she started the clock ticking on when Britain will definitely leave the European Union, by saying she will activate Article 50 no later than 31 March 2017. Secondly, she said that Brexit meant that Britain would control its own borders. And thirdly, she said that Brexit meant that Britain would no longer be subject to the judgements of the European Court of Justice.

The first reveal means that there is no chance that any of 27 remaining nations of the European Union will break ranks and begin informal talks before Article 50 is triggered.

The second reveal makes it clear that Britain will leave the single market, because none of the four freedoms – of goods, services, capital or people – can be negotiated away, not least because of the fear of political contagion within the EU27, as an exit deal which allowed the United Kingdom to maintain the three other freedoms while giving up the fourth would cause increased pressure from Eurosceptics in western Europe.

And the third reveal makes it equally clear that Britain will leave the customs union as there is no way you can be part of a union if you do not wish to accept its legal arbiter.

So the government has already revealed its big priorities and has therefore jacked up the price, meaning that the arguments about not revealing the government’s hand is not as strong as it ideally would be.

The other problem, though, is this: Theresa May’s Brexit objectives cannot be met without a hard Brexit, with the only question the scale of the initial shock. As I’ve written before, there is a sense that the government might be able to “pay to play”, ie, in exchange for continuing to send money to Brussels and to member states, the United Kingdom could maintain a decent standard of access to the single market.

My impression is that the mood in Brussels now makes this very tricky. The tone coming out of Conservative party conference has left goodwill in short supply, meaning that a “pay to play” deal is unlikely. But the other problem is that, by leaving so much of its objectives in the dark, Theresa May is not really laying the groundwork for a situation where she can return to Britain with an exit deal where Britain pays large sums to the European Union for a worse deal than the one it has now. (By the way, that is very much the best case scenario for what she might come back with.) Silence may make for good negotiations in Brussels – but in terms of the negotiation that may follow swiftly after in Westminster, it has entirely the opposite effect. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.