It was a failure of regulation

The evidence from history is clear. Weakly controlled banking systems tend to have a high proportion

The bank failures of recent weeks have been shocking. For many people it is almost beyond belief that names such as Bradford & Bingley, HBOS, Lehman Brothers and Wachovia could disappear apparently just like that. Yet economic history tells us that the risk of banking crises is ever present, goes up in an age of globalisation as capital becomes more internationally mobile and requires effective regulation to be contained.

The most infamous banking crises in economic history were those of the 1930s and the worst affected country was the United States, in which 9,000 banks failed between 1929 and 1933, a period when the money supply and real GDP fell by 29 and 33 per cent, respectively. As is well-known, the Roosevelt administration responded to the crisis with a "Bank Holiday", the introduction of Federal Deposit Insurance, re-regulation of the banking system and closure of a further 1,000 banks, and then recapitalised the banking system through the Reconstruction Finance Corporation. By 1935, the government in effect owned about a third of the American banking system and the fiscal cost of state aid to the financial system was 13 per cent of GDP. This was not, of course, the end of capitalism but a necessary, temporary phase on the road to recovery in the later 1930s.

The banking crisis of the American Great Depression was an extreme event but the risks and the costs of a milder version are not trivial. It has been found that in recent decades there has been around a 2 per cent chance per year that a country will have a banking crisis and that the cumulative GDP loss when this happens is about 6 per cent of GDP. Moreover, World Bank research shows that the fiscal costs of a banking crisis are frequently 10 per cent or more of GDP.

Mainstream economists are well aware that important "market failure" issues arise in the context of banking. In a world of imperfect and asymmetric information, the banking system is prone to failures of monitoring by depositors (who face a free-rider problem) and excessive risk-taking ("moral hazard") by bankers. Bank runs are an ever-present risk in a context of uncertainty about the true value of bank assets and the inability of depositors to co-ordinate their actions. The implications are that solvent banks with liquidity problems may be forced into bankruptcy and that a scramble for liquidity may entail meltdown risks for the financial system. These points were long ago well articulated by writers such as Frederic Mishkin, and have found their way into the textbooks.

Several equally well-known and important policy lessons follow. These include the crucial role of the central bank as the lender of last resort and the fundamental importance of the state as a regulator and supervisor of the banking system. This should entail ensuring the capital adequacy of banks, overseeing risk management strategies, enforcing appropriate accounting standards and so on. When banking crises occur, the role of the government is to apportion losses between shareholders, depositors and taxpayers and to facilitate the recapitalisation of banks. The politics of this may be difficult but the alternative meltdown risk of inaction is much worse.

The historical evidence is quite clear. Badly regulated banking systems are much more likely to have a high proportion of non-performing loans and to fail. There were no banking crises in western countries in the Bretton Woods era of strict regulation and international capital controls that followed the debacle of the 1930s. Bank failures are generally not random events, although contagion can occur. In 1929, American banks were inadequately regulated and the banks that failed were those that had weak balance sheets before the crisis hit. In the Asian crisis of 1997-98, it was the weakly regulated Korean banking system that collapsed, while the well-regulated Singaporean system emerged unscathed.

Clearly, regulation can be excessive and can impose unnecessary costs. For example, the prohibition of universal banking in the United States by the Glass-Steagall Act of 1933 was a draconian overreaction, as were the restrictions on international capital movements in the 1950s. Nevertheless, a sound regulatory regime is fundamental to the successful functioning of the financial system and to financial stability, and is a central responsibility of government.

It must be questioned how well the British government has performed in terms of financial regulation. For example, the recent Financial Development Report of the World Economic Forum rated the UK only 23rd out of 52 countries on its financial stability index and saw the UK as having a relatively high risk of a systemic banking crisis. It is important that the government acts to prevent the banking crisis getting worse. But it will be poetic injustice if Gordon Brown eventually claims the credit for "saving the British banking system" (with taxpayers' money), given that the roots of the problem lie in the inadequate regulatory regime that he put in place.

Nicholas Crafts is professor of economic history at the University of Warwick

This article first appeared in the 06 October 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Perils of power

Getty
Show Hide image

The New Times: Brexit, globalisation, the crisis in Labour and the future of the left

With essays by David Miliband, Paul Mason, John Harris, Lisa Nandy, Vince Cable and more.

Once again the “new times” are associated with the ascendancy of the right. The financial crash of 2007-2008 – and the Great Recession and sovereign debt crises that were a consequence of it – were meant to have marked the end of an era of runaway “turbocapitalism”. It never came close to happening. The crash was a crisis of capitalism but not the crisis of capitalism. As Lenin observed, there is “no such thing as an absolutely hopeless situation” for capitalism, and so we discovered again. Instead, the greatest burden of the period of fiscal retrenchment that followed the crash was carried by the poorest in society, those most directly affected by austerity, and this in turn has contributed to a deepening distrust of elites and a wider crisis of governance.

Where are we now and in which direction are we heading?

Some of the contributors to this special issue believe that we have reached the end of the “neoliberal” era. I am more sceptical. In any event, the end of neoliberalism, however you define it, will not lead to a social-democratic revival: it looks as if, in many Western countries, we are entering an age in which centre-left parties cannot form ruling majorities, having leaked support to nationalists, populists and more radical alternatives.

Certainly the British Labour Party, riven by a war between its parliamentary representatives and much of its membership, is in a critical condition. At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has inspired a remarkable re-engagement with left-wing politics, even as his party slumps in the polls. His own views may seem frozen in time, but hundreds of thousands of people, many of them young graduates, have responded to his anti-austerity rhetoric, his candour and his shambolic, unspun style.

The EU referendum, in which as much as one-third of Labour supporters voted for Brexit, exposed another chasm in Labour – this time between educated metropolitan liberals and the more socially conservative white working class on whose loyalty the party has long depended. This no longer looks like a viable election-winning coalition, especially after the collapse of Labour in Scotland and the concomitant rise of nationalism in England.

In Marxism Today’s “New Times” issue of October 1988, Stuart Hall wrote: “The left seems not just displaced by Thatcherism, but disabled, flattened, becalmed by the very prospect of change; afraid of rooting itself in ‘the new’ and unable to make the leap of imagination required to engage the future.” Something similar could be said of the left today as it confronts Brexit, the disunities within the United Kingdom, and, in Theresa May, a prime minister who has indicated that she might be prepared to break with the orthodoxies of the past three decades.

The Labour leadership contest between Corbyn and Owen Smith was largely an exercise in nostalgia, both candidates seeking to revive policies that defined an era of mass production and working-class solidarity when Labour was strong. On matters such as immigration, digital disruption, the new gig economy or the power of networks, they had little to say. They proposed a politics of opposition – against austerity, against grammar schools. But what were they for? Neither man seemed capable of embracing the “leading edge of change” or of making the imaginative leap necessary to engage the future.

So is there a politics of the left that will allow us to ride with the currents of these turbulent “new times” and thus shape rather than be flattened by them? Over the next 34 pages 18 writers, offering many perspectives, attempt to answer this and related questions as they analyse the forces shaping a world in which power is shifting to the East, wars rage unchecked in the Middle East, refugees drown en masse in the Mediterranean, technology is outstripping our capacity to understand it, and globalisation begins to fragment.

— Jason Cowley, Editor 

Tom Kibasi on what the left fails to see

Philip Collins on why it's time for Labour to end its crisis

John Harris on why Labour is losing its heartland

Lisa Nandy on how Labour has been halted and hollowed out

David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

John Gray on why the right, not the left, has grasped the new times

Mariana Mazzucato on why it's time for progressives to rethink capitalism

Robert Ford on why the left must reckon with the anger of those left behind

Ros Wynne-Jones on the people who need a Labour government most

Gary Gerstle on Corbyn, Sanders and the populist surge

Nick Pearce on why the left is haunted by the ghosts of the 1930s

Paul Mason on why the left must be ready to cause a commotion

Neal Lawson on what the new, 21st-century left needs now

Charles Leadbeater explains why we are all existentialists now

John Bew mourns the lost left

Marc Stears on why democracy is a long, hard, slow business

Vince Cable on how a financial crisis empowered the right

David Miliband on why the left needs to move forward, not back

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times