Anthony Hilton: We're stifling banks but no one in charge will be seen being easy on them


The economy had experienced a heart attack, Business Secretary Vince Cable told an audience at an event on Wednesday organised by the think tank Politeia. Recuperation is slow, uncertain and takes a very long time, so you should not expect at this relatively early stage that we would be sprinting down the track like Jessica Ennis.

But there are hopeful signs in that unemployment is much lower than feared, and, though it is less widely appreciated, we have avoided some of the big mistakes of earlier crises. In sharp contrast to the 1930s, for example, the nations of the world have not resorted to protectionism and competitive devaluations, with the result that world trade continues to grow and can play a large part in stimulating global recovery.

Not so fast, said one of the audience. While it is true that there were no new tariff barriers or attempts to stifle the flows of physical goods, there had been a huge surge of protectionism in finance, much of it driven by regulators and encouraged by governments.

The whole cross-border nature of global finance was under attack with regulators demanding that banks be separately capitalised in each country where they operate, and a string of regulations which were national rather than international in their impact.

Cross-border lending had plunged and, from being global a few years ago, finance was becoming increasingly balkanised. This made it more costly, less efficient and less able to serve the needs of the global economy and would, in his view, have huge consequences in the medium term for global growth and recovery from the current stagnation.

The obvious riposte, from others in the audience rather than the business secretary, was that the banks had brought this on themselves and politicians were merely taking steps to try to stop something similar happening again.

The point is valid nevertheless. You could stop serious road accidents by imposing a 5mph speed limit on the nation's roads, but the costs would outweigh the benefits. There is a severe risk that we are trying to do the equivalent in banking and fail to realise that we will pay a high price for excessive safety.

It is tempting to dismiss all complaints by bankers as self serving, but this is too important for that and there are signs that regulators round the world are beginning to feel a bit uneasy about piling too much on too fast.

Some say privately that they would like to be significantly less stringent but their difficulty is that they have so little wriggle room. Banks remain so unpopular that no politician or public official wants to be accused of doing them favours.