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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Let's turn RBS into a bank for the public interest

A tarnished symbol of global finance could be remade as a network of local banks. 

The Royal Bank of Scotland has now been losing money for nine consecutive years. Today’s announcement of a further £7bn yearly loss at the publicly-owned bank is just the latest evidence that RBS is essentially unsellable. The difference this time is that the Government seems finally to have accepted that fact.

Up until now, the government had been reluctant to intervene in the running of the business, instead insisting that it will be sold back to the private sector when the time is right. But these losses come just a week after the government announced that it is abandoning plans to sell Williams & Glynn – an RBS subsidiary which has over 300 branches and £22bn of customer deposits.

After a series of expensive delays and a lack of buyer interest, the government now plans to retain Williams & Glynn within the RBS group and instead attempt to boost competition in the business lending market by granting smaller "challenger banks" access to RBS’s branch infrastructure. It also plans to provide funding to encourage small businesses to switch their accounts away from RBS.

As a major public asset, RBS should be used to help achieve wider objectives. Improving how the banking sector serves small businesses should be the top priority, and it is good to see the government start to move in this direction. But to make the most of RBS, they should be going much further.

The public stake in RBS gives us a unique opportunity to create new banking institutions that will genuinely put the interests of the UK’s small businesses first. The New Economics Foundation has proposed turning RBS into a network of local banks with a public interest mandate to serve their local area, lend to small businesses and provide universal access to banking services. If the government is serious about rebalancing the economy and meeting the needs of those who feel left behind, this is the path they should take with RBS.

Small and medium sized enterprises are the lifeblood of the UK economy, and they depend on banking services to fund investment and provide a safe place to store money. For centuries a healthy relationship between businesses and banks has been a cornerstone of UK prosperity.

However, in recent decades this relationship has broken down. Small businesses have repeatedly fallen victim to exploitative practice by the big banks, including the the mis-selling of loans and instances of deliberate asset stripping. Affected business owners have not only lost their livelihoods due to the stress of their treatment at the hands of these banks, but have also experienced family break-ups and deteriorating physical and mental health. Others have been made homeless or bankrupt.

Meanwhile, many businesses struggle to get access to the finance they need to grow and expand. Small firms have always had trouble accessing finance, but in recent decades this problem has intensified as the UK banking sector has come to be dominated by a handful of large, universal, shareholder-owned banks.

Without a focus on specific geographical areas or social objectives, these banks choose to lend to the most profitable activities, and lending to local businesses tends to be less profitable than other activities such as mortgage lending and lending to other financial institutions.

The result is that since the mid-1980s the share of lending going to non-financial businesses has been falling rapidly. Today, lending to small and medium sized businesses accounts for just 4 per cent of bank lending.

Of the relatively small amount of business lending that does occur in the UK, most is heavily concentrated in London and surrounding areas. The UK’s homogenous and highly concentrated banking sector is therefore hampering economic development, starving communities of investment and making regional imbalances worse.

The government’s plans to encourage business customers to switch away from RBS to another bank will not do much to solve this problem. With the market dominated by a small number of large shareholder-owned banks who all behave in similar ways (and who have been hit by repeated scandals), businesses do not have any real choice.

If the government were to go further and turn RBS into a network of local banks, it would be a vital first step in regenerating disenfranchised communities, rebalancing the UK’s economy and staving off any economic downturn that may be on the horizon. Evidence shows that geographically limited stakeholder banks direct a much greater proportion of their capital towards lending in the real economy. By only investing in their local area, these banks help create and retain wealth regionally rather than making existing geographic imbalances worce.

Big, deep challenges require big, deep solutions. It’s time for the government to make banking work for small businesses once again.

Laurie Macfarlane is an economist at the New Economics Foundation