James Moore: No wonder the banks are cheering the latest rules on their asset buffers

Outlook: US banks actually look in far better shape than some of their European rivals right now, and that's a relief
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Have the Basel banking supervisors gone soft all of a sudden? That's one way of looking at their decision to ease the tough criteria on the amount of cash and easy-to-sell assets banks have to hold as a buffer in the event of a fresh crisis.

Such buffers are supposed to keep them from going under if lots of people withdraw their money, as with Northern Rock, or if wholesale funding markets dry up again.

But the character of the buffers has changed. Now, in addition to cash and government bonds, banks will be allowed to include other things, even some mortgages, within the pot, despite the fact that mortgages proved all but impossible to sell during the last financial crisis. What's more, the new softer rules won't apply until 2019, four years later than originally intended. It's worth noting that the biggest cheers were coming from banks in, you've guessed it, Spain and Italy yesterday.

Does it matter? When it comes to the new capital and liquidity requirements that the Basel supervisors want to impose, our banks largely comply now. They are much safer than they once were.

Take Barclays. At the end of 2004 it had a core tier one capital ratio – a measure of top quality assets held – of 4.7 per cent. After nine months of 2012, the figure stood at 11.2 per cent. Its pool of liquidity – easily saleable assets – ballooned from £19bn to £160bn over the same period.

Barclays, and its peers, might now be able to make a bit more of a return on the buffer assets they have to hold, which will please investors.

If easier rules lead to more lending, it will please nearly everyone.

The worry is that certain institutions will now backslide when it comes to making tough decisions. Such as some of those in Italy and Spain.

The bigger concern about Basel, however, is that it simply doesn't count in one very important part of the world. American banks haven't implemented parts of the overly weak Basel II accords yet. They're hardly thinking about the new ones (Basel III). We might argue that if that's the way American regulators want to go more fool them, and more fool the American taxpayer who will be on the hook if another big US bank goes bad.

US banks actually look in far better shape than some of their European rivals right now, and that's a relief. Because it won't just be US taxpayer who suffers if one of them blows up.

None of this tinkering changes the core problem with the world's megabanks: when all is said and done, they are still too big to fail.

This time Ladbrokes chief will get deal done

Bet on this: Richard Glynn is finally going to call time on his Grand Old Duke of York act when it comes to Ladbrokes doing deals.

On previous occasions when news of the bookie being in talks about buying an online betting business has leaked the company has had to put out statements confirming the stories, only to then walk away. But with the potential takeover of Betdaq, an online betting exchange, the smart money is on chief executive Mr Glynn getting the deal done. Ladbrokes, one of the most vocal critics of betting exchanges when Betfair emerged, will own one soon.

In theory, this makes sense. Betfair, the runaway market leader, could use some competition, and Ladbrokes will be able to offer its more sophisticated clients, those who want to play bookmaker by "laying" horses to lose, and who trade in and out of various betting markets, the chance to do this with Ladbrokes rather than Betfair.

In practice, it's going to be tough to make it work. Betfair is king because it has liquidity. If a Joe Smith wants to back Laddies Poker Two to win a race (there really is a horse bearing that name) through Betfair, the exchange will be almost always be able to match him with a Bill Jones who wants to "lay" it to lose. Smaller rival exchanges don't have enough customers to do that consistently and often have to sit on the other side of their clients' bets. Which makes life complicated.

Putting a real dent in Betfair's dominance would mean a brutal fight, and Ladbrokes needs to get its online offering right before going there. The real opportunity to move beyond its "traditional" bookmaking will come in a few years' time, when the Tote loses its monopoly on pool betting.

Morrisons needs to be bolder with prices

If you thought Morrisons had problems after yesterday's dismal sales figures, chew on this. Britain's number four grocer has turned to the two-headed monster of light entertainment in an attempt to boost its flagging sales. Yes, Ant and Dec are coming to a commercial break near you. Jamie Oliver's Sainsbury's ads may prove only mildly irritating by comparison.

The trouble is, while the cheeky Geordie chappies are bizarrely popular among certain sectors of the British public, they won't be able to persuade shoppers to come on down to their local Morrisons if the price isn't right. And compared to Lidl and Aldi, the price isn't right.

Much attention has been given to Morrisons' lack of an online grocery business, given the sector's rapid growth. But that growth hasn't been particularly profitable, and Morrisons can catch up. Plans for a rapid expansion of convenience stores, particularly within the M25, will arguably be of more tangible benefit.

However, Morrisons is still a very profitable business. More profitable than Sainsbury's, the sector darling. Profitable enough, perhaps, for chief executive Dalton Philips to be bold and sacrifice some of his margins in favour of getting aggressive on prices. The City might let him get away with such a move now. It probably won't in six months' time if the business keeps disappointing.