James Moore: For once bank chiefs are right to be angry
James Moore is the Independent's Associate Business Editor and writes the Outlook City comment column from Tuesday to Friday. He also has a keen interest in disability issues and when not attempting to further injure himself playing wheelchair basketball.
Wednesday 15 May 2013
Outlook Royal Bank of Scotland might be through the worst, but it remains very much a work in progress. If anyone was in any doubt about that fact, the chief executive, Stephen Hester, made it clear yesterday when he told the bank's annual meeting that it could take 18 months to plug what amounts to a black hole in its balance sheet.
The problem he faces is that he doesn't really know how big that hole is, because the Bank of England won't tell him.
Its existence was made clear when the Bank said UK banks needed to raise a staggering £25bn by the end of the year. However, it declined to specify which should be counting their pennies or how many pennies they needed to raise. Even in private.
Personally, I've no problem with the Bank, or its Prudential Regulation Authority, taking a conservative line.
There is still a substantial corps of influential people who believe that the work of reforming and recapitalising the UK's banking industry is only half done. They might have a point. Memories tend to be particularly short in the City, and it is easy to forget just how dangerous the financial crisis was. It is worth recalling that at its worst, hedge fund managers – smart, well-informed and ruthless people – were buying herds of sheep to barter with. This country alone had to deploy the thick end of £1 trillion in public funds just to keep the show on the road. It might not seem like it now, but the world dodged a bullet.
Financial supervisors therefore have good reason to take a hard line.
That said, it doesn't help anyone to make bold pronouncements only to fail to communicate the detail to the firms that they are aimed at. The bosses of those firms are currently spitting tacks, and for once they have a point.
One of the striking features of the financial crisis, and the scandals it coughed up (such as Libor rate fixing) is just how poorly banks, politicians and regulators communicated with each other. And how often the various sides misheard, or misinterpreted, what they were saying to each other.
The Bank now sits at the centre of Britain's system of financial oversight, and bears the whip hand. Many feel that things would have been handled a lot better had this been the case during the overt phase of the crisis.
That is looking debateable. The mystery of who needs to raise funds, and how much, demonstrates that important lessons still haven't been learnt.
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