Thursday, April 02, 2009


Some people are in love with love and some are in love with revolution. The incoherent G-20 protestors (I saw some carrying a banner with "ABOLISH MONEY") may want to channel 1905 in St. Petersburg, 1965 in Selma or 1968 in Prague, but they do provide contrasts with the G-20 leaders. They want the western European heads of state to implement more economic regulation. The western Eurpoean heads, in turn, are badgering Barack Obama to become more of a regulator. But the U.S. President is trying to regulate as fast as he can.

For some perspective, the WSJ's Simon Nixon reports:

Anticapitalist protesters gathering in London for two days of demonstrations are missing the point. If there is one myth the credit crunch has surely exploded, it is that the financial system is a free market. The world is in a mess because the financial system wasn't capitalist enough.

True, there were some terrible regulatory failures, and politicians lacked the stomach to stop excess as bubbles formed. But successive bailouts over many years also distorted the banking system to the point where real price signals were swamped. Nothing in the current global recovery proposals suggests this lesson has been learned.

In a capitalist system, prices are set in the free market and providers of capital bear responsibility for their losses. Neither of these characteristics hold true of the banking system. The price of credit, the basic commodity of the financial system, was distorted first by implicit government guarantees to depositors and other providers of capital, and second by the tendency of governments to cut interest rates at the first sign of financial trouble.

Financial theory says the cost of capital to an enterprise should rise in line with risk. But banks during the boom were able to leverage themselves more than 50 times yet see their cost of funding fall.

That is hardly the sign of a well-functioning free market. Those who provided funding to banks correctly gambled that governments would ride to their rescue. Since the crisis began, implicit guarantees have become explicit and thresholds have been raised. The U.K. is even proposing to raise depositor protection in certain circumstances to £500,000 ($717,360), further undermining the principle of personal responsibility.

This government protection effectively extends to wholesale funding, too. With a few exceptions, including Lehman Brothers, bondholders have been spared losses as a result of bank failures.

Indeed, it has been axiomatic of the policy-maker response that bondholders should be kept whole to avoid the threat that the banking system would seize up completely or that the insurance industry, with large bond portfolios, would become the next domino to fall. Most Western bank bonds are now issued with an explicit government guarantee. The result is a distorted global financial system in which the true cost of capital is obscured.

In a fully capitalist system, there would be no guarantees. The market would ensure banks didn't become too big or too leveraged.

At least the current crisis is sure to lead to higher common-equity buffers for all. But since removing the guarantees and breaking up the banks is outside the realm of political reality, an alternative solution is to charge banks explicitly and upfront for all guarantees. The charges would rise in line with leverage. That at least would raise the cost of funding, helping to generate a price signal to the market.
Instead, global governments are taking the opposite tack. Unable to remove the guarantees and unwilling to properly charge for them because the banks remain too weak, they will try to limit the risks through more intrusive regulation.

The results, if that goes too far, should be clear enough: lower bank profits, less capital generated, less credit created, lower economic growth and more bureaucratic control over the banks and the wider economy.

The protesters should be careful what they wish for.