Simon English: Sir Mervyn may seem like yesterday's man but we should heed his advice


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The Independent Online

Outlook It's understandable that some folk lately see Sir Mervyn King as part of the problem. A fusty guy who was in charge when everything went haywire, still lecturing everyone else about their failings even as he shuffles off towards retirement. He should stop banging on about what's wrong with us and adopt a different approach.

How about this one: Open mouth. Insert sock. Chew.

The Bank of England governor doesn't have a necessarily winning way. He knows more than you do, which makes the question you just asked him an embarrassment to both parties, is his typical opening stance. (He regards press questions the way Geoffrey Boycott regarded the first 50 overs – deliveries to be patted back with suspicion).

And lately there is a chance that he's overexposed, but then it's not his fault that what he says gets reported so regularly. He'd far rather be out of the papers than in them.

That we collectively get bored with people in public life is understandable and Sir Merv has been around for more than a while.

But there's every chance that he will turn out to be someone we rather miss. His stewardship of the Bank of England may lately be regarded as a period of stoic ambassadorship, before the new man, some loony from Canada, took charge and all hell broke loose.

Signs of that hell came in yesterday's Financial Stability Report from the Bank of England, issue no 32 for those of you counting.

It's tempting to think that the worst of the banks crisis is in the past, that the bailouts have fixed the main problems and that we are now wiggling our way to security.

If you want to hold on to that idea, don't read this report.

There is, says the FSR, "under-recognition of expected future losses on loans", from the banks. They are still in dreamland, in other words.

There are far more costs coming for PPI mis-selling than the banks have yet fessed up to, and a rising number of "conduct issues" (that's Sir Mervyn-speak for "banks are still ripping us off as a matter of course").

The market value of the four largest UK banks' equity is about £90bn less than book value, warns the report.

What is this telling us? That nobody believes the book value; investors still look at bank balance sheets and regard them as a lie, or at best the most optimistic assessment of the truth possible.

The Financial Policy Committee, under whose guidance the report was published, thinks the banks' accounts should reflect "a proper valuation of their assets", a "realistic assessment" of risk.

"Prior to the crisis," the report notes, "there was little difference" between what banks said their assets were worth and what investors thought they were worth.

That the gaping hole still exists after all we have been through is worrying.

Sir Mervyn isn't noting all of this because he enjoys being miserly; he'd much rather be at the cricket.

He is trying to help us get to somewhere sustainable – perhaps even suggesting the policy of the past four years, let's call it extend and pretend, was useful for a while but that at some point we need to have a reality check and it might as well be now.