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Peston - Who'll Be Shot When Banks Misbehave?

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Robert Peston's blog on the BBC News website


"As the Treasury select committee says, the "who-gets-fired" test is a pretty good way of ascertaining whether there are clear lines of responsibility in any organisation or group of organisations.

That said, most of our personal experience would indicate that surprisingly few institutions - in either the public sector or private sector - pass this test with flying colours.

However, as and when the system for preventing our banks and financial institutions from making a terrible mess of it all again is finally perfected, it would - as the MPs point out - be sensible to have some clarity about who is in charge.

They think that the Council for Financial Stability - the new body for co-ordinating the financial-oversight work of the Treasury, Financial Services Authority and Bank of England - is a "cosmetic change", a "rebranding" that "will achieve little by itself".

That's a knee to the tender parts of the Chancellor of the Exchequer.

On the other hand, there's no endorsement of the Tories' plan to make the Bank of England the all-powerful super-regulator-cum-central-bank.

As it happens, George Osborne, the shadow chancellor, can answer the question "who gets fired?" in his utopian regulatory world. As and when we're all covered in ordure generated by the banks again, it would be the governor of the Bank of England who would get the bullet.

Lucky old Mervyn.

However, the Treasury select committee implies that it may be a bit previous to go nap on Mr King as the potential fall guy.

It wants decisions taken first on the "macro-prudential" tools that are needed to prevent banks lending too much during an economic boom.

Only when it's clear how best to prevent a generalised lending binge (those were the days) can there be a judgement on whether it's the Bank of England or the Financial Services Authority that should be lead party-pooper, say the MPs.

In this context, it's worth pointing out that there's something of a nuanced assessment of the FSA.

The report says that the FSA has "failed dreadfully in its supervision of the banking sector" but compliments the regulator for its "speed of progress" in recruiting better staff and enhanced training.

For me, however, the most important parts of the report relate to stuff I've been boring on about here for months and months: viz, the best ways of shrinking banks individually and collectively so that they can no longer hold the taxpayer to ransom.

The big question is how to break the link between the creditworthiness of British banks and the creditworthiness of the UK as a whole - or how to reduce state-protected banks' dependence on massive, unreliable wholesale funding from abroad that turned out to have been underwritten by us, by taxpayers (though no-one ever asked us if we wanted to be the guarantors of the banks' reckless borrowing).

Like the authorities, the MPs are still feeling their way towards a long-term solution, and there's no immediate prospect of ending the destructive mutual dependence between a bloated banking sector and an over-stretched public-sector balance sheet.

That said, the MPs - like the Treasury and the FSA - believe that, in the many years to come, the banks can be taxed down to size, or incentivised to slim down and simplified by imposing substantial additional capital requirements on banks that are big or complex or engage in a good deal of speculative trading.

Against that background, if you're in a mood to fume once more at the way that individual bankers enriched themselves at taxpayers' expense, I commend to you a report published yesterday by the New York State attorney general on fat bonuses paid last year by US banks that were kept alive by public money.

The once-mighty Citigroup, for example, received hundreds of billions of dollars in investment and guarantees from American taxpayers, but still paid out $609.1m in bonuses to its top 124 bonus recipients: three individuals received bonuses of $10m or more; 13 pocketed bonuses of $8m or more; 44 individuals trousered bonuses of $5m or more.

Merrill Lynch, which was rescued by Bank of America and generated losses last year of $27.6bn, paid its top four bonus recipients in 2008 a combined $121m and the next four received $62m. The top 149 bonus recipients at Merrill received a combined $858m.

This spectacle of bankers' snouts in the trough feasting thanks to the emergency succour provided by taxpayers was also to be seen at Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley and JP Morgan.

And all the while a painful global recession - partly caused by bankers' excess - was depriving less fortunate citizens of their livelihoods.

We don't have an equivalent report into the bonuses paid last year by British banks.

And perhaps that's just as well.

We tend to pride ourselves at being an imperturbable, unrevolutionary nation. Not for us the defenestrations and guillotinings of continental popular uprisings.

But the vision of bankers gorging on the carcass of the economy like bloated ancien regime aristocrats might upset a few, I suppose."

You can say that again, Pesto.

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