Leading article: Ignore the whingeing of the banks

Click to follow
The Independent Online

The bankers will not have enjoyed this year's World Economic Forum in Davos. They clearly thought the exclusive get-together would be the perfect venue to launch a co-ordinated fightback against the banking regulation reforms announced last week by Barack Obama.

But almost no one from the US was in Davos to hear their complaints. The presidential economic adviser Larry Summers, thought by many, in any case, to be sceptical about some of the reforms himself, was the only attendee of note from Mr Obama's administration. Europe's politicians, meanwhile, were in no mood to listen to the banks' whingeing.

Nor should bankers set too much store by reports that Britain's Chancellor is sceptical about the US plan to split retail banks from their investment banking subsidiaries. Alistair Darling may not favour the mechanisms proposed by Mr Obama, but he shares the President's goals. To this end, the UK will support international rules that require banks to set aside much larger amounts of capital if they engage in proprietary trading, severely inhibiting their ability to do so. Mr Darling has also warmed to the US proposal for the banks to pay annual insurance levies to build a bailout fund for use in future crises.

However, while it is comforting that an international consensus on regulatory reform is finally being forged, there is plenty of work still to be done to bring the bankers to heel. It is almost 18 months since the collapse of Lehman Brothers plunged the world into financial crisis, yet banking regulators working in Basel to draw together different countries' requirements for reform have yet to publish a final blueprint for change.

When it does come, that blueprint must reflect the short shrift given to bankers in Davos over the past few days. Mr Obama is right to insist that governments can no longer tacitly underwrite the casino banking activities of institutions with retail depositors. In one sense it does not matter whether we achieve that goal by insisting on a total split between retail and investment banking, or with capital requirements that produce the same result (although this newspaper believes the American approach would be more effective).

The final reforms must also make the banks responsible for picking up the bill should there be another crisis despite the best endeavours to prevent one. An insurance levy is one option; another is a global transaction charge (the so-called Tobin tax favoured by Gordon Brown). Either would raise considerable sums.

Leading bankers have argued in Davos that too much regulation will blunt their competitive instincts and deprive the world of the economic benefits that spring from leaving the market unfettered by onerous compliance requirements. But we have tried the light touch, laissez-faire approach to regulating banks. The result was a devastating financial crisis and the worst global recession on record.