Banks and Time Travel


So, Mr Stephen Hestor of Royal Bank of Scotland was pressured into giving up his bonus by a Parliament that threatened to vote against it.

So, Mr Fred Goodwin gets be-knighted by a committee advising the Queen.

Ancient institutions – the royal family and the House of Commons – are playing that old game (which the politicians invariably lose) about who is in charge – government (be they democratically elected or through birth) or the banks? Governments (at least the democratically elected bits) change with the whims of the electorate – banks and banking survive because money is the root of all our economic prosperity – banking is the provider of dreams.

It is a very old game. Since well before Nathan Rothschild strode above the travails of mid-19th Century politicians who were desperate for his bank’s money to fund their economies and wars, banks and bankers have formed their own super-economy – one that economists and politicians have progressively failed to explain or manage.

While the Royal Bank of Scotland saga focuses on bankers’ pay and the balance of reward between employees and shareholders (i.e. who should gain most from banks’ profitability), this misses the crucial issue completely.

What is it that makes banks and banking so critical to world economies in a way that no other industry is so that we are willing to allow them monopolistic rewards – the rewards akin to a totalitarian regime? More than this, how is the overall financial services industry – of which banks are just part – changing and how does it need to change to best serve people and real wealth producing companies, people and our governments in the 21st Century?

What are banks for?

At a simple level, banks are there to provide the alchemy to the economic system – they are asset transformers (David Llewellyn – the New Economics of Banking – 1999). Banks and financial institutions transform money received into money loaned. They transform short-term into long-term. They make tomorrow’s needs available today by making money work hard.

This transformation process (the essence of monetisation ever since the ending of barter economies) has been a crucial bedrock on which economic growth is based. The wealth effect of the asset transformers has been to bring forward tomorrow’s growth into today or next year’s into this or the next generations into this one. This time travel – the bringing forward of the future – is seen whether it is Governments spending trillions today to pay back in future generations, companies bringing forward projects on the basis of payback in three to five years all the way to purchases made on credit cards to pay back (or not) in a month or six. Banks and financial institutions have developed ever-more sophisticated ways to drive the transformation.

Sub-prime problems in 2008 showed, like most banking crises, the fault line in the world’s financial system – the cracks that often appear in that bedrock.

Pressure builds up just like the earth’s crust before an earthquake as financial institutions offer more and more high risk promises to transform the future to the present. In this case, promises to those who could never repay to buy properties they could never afford. It could have been corporate over-stretching. It could have been government over-spending – as it has now become: a massive sovereign debt crisis in the western economies.

The short-term bonus culture of the banks was and remains a symptom not the problem. The battle between senior bank employees and their shareholders is not the problem. The essential risk nature of banking (and there never has been a safe period when bankers were just bank managers who would not give loans – this is a myth circulated while banks were providing high risk loans throughout the corporate and national world) is that the asset transformation process (this time travelling capacity to bring forward tomorrow into today) is deemed to be so critical to the world’s economic system that banks (and many other financial institutions) are deemed to be vital and their survival guaranteed by governments. This has led inexorably to the current sovereign debt crisis in Europe and the ability of senior banking staff to act as monopolistic winners over both the banks’ shareholders and the rest of the economy. As David Kynaston wrote about the reasons for more recent banking excesses : “the most important is the arrival of the insidiously tempting one-way bet.”(David Kynaston – City of London – 2011)

So what (if anything) can be done to change this?

The Threat to the Time Travellers

As Llewellyn’s paper in 1999 suggested (and this was before the banking mayhem of 2008), banks are undergoing major changes that technology (for example) is forcing. Banking (for so long run by insider networks who knew each other and government ministers intimately, went to the same schools and spoke the same language) is now more open to other institutions (whether supermarkets or Virgin) and trading companies are better equipped to tackle the markets directly (corporate bond issues being the main way of doing this).

Yet, traditional banking methods and the banks’ place in the economy (especially in London) feels similar to what it has done for 200 years even if the competition is growing from other institutions and from overseas (Chinese banks – owned and dependent on the Chinese State – especially). Defence of our banks by our government against the newly developing nations financial institutions is one impediment to progress.

This could be a tipping point, though. Money and monetary systems will remain the kratogenic blocks on which economies slide and which cause massive earthquakes from time to time, but the banks’ position within these systems will change. Digitisation and the spread of wealth into the developing nations of China, Brazil and elsewhere will fracture the monopoly position of western banks and the West’s financial institutions. This may well be a good thing as monopolies are inherently massive impediments to improvement and sustainable growth.

A problem is that western economies that are dependent (or believe they are) on their banking system (London and New York especially but Paris and Frankfurt and elsewhere hate the prospect of losing their monopolies) will fight tooth and nail to prevent or at least slow the pace of change.

The other impediment to change is that those who are in charge of the change process – governments – don’t really understand the nature of banking. Tinkering at the edges (whether bonuses or knighthoods) is a waste of effort. Enlarging capital bases and splitting the casino elements of banking (which would be allowed to fail) from the more traditional lending elements of banks is moving to the right lines if (and this is the critical issue) there is an understanding of how this addresses the massive risks that banks are engaged in (and always have been). Many have argued that this splitting (providing only banks which are less susceptible to macroeconomic shocks should be given last resort assistance) is a cornerstone requirement.(Rochet, J-C Macroeconomic Shocks and Banking Supervision – 2008)

The enlarged capital bases and splitting of key activities into Chinese wall separated entities are hints of the crucial risk factors but not the answer in themselves. For risk and uncertainty are two entirely different features. Risk can be assessed, uncertainty cannot – a set of unknown unknowns. Individual bank risk at the micro-economic level may be manageable through higher capital ratios but take all the banks together and does an amalgam of micro-economic management techniques bulk up to a macro-economic solution?

As digitisation and competition (from other corporations and from newly developing countries) grow, it will lead to more opportunities to time travel. Yuan-based promises are no different from $ or € or £. The risks just get higher.

The critical issue is to manage the degree of tomorrow’s future wealth that we are willing to risk having now. Just like burning oil and gas today has a direct impact on our future generations, so monetary time travel can suck in tomorrow’s wealth. Just ask the Greeks (and Portuguese and the 50% of young Spanish without jobs) whether they agree with monetary time travelling – taking too much of the future for consumption now.

This is a hard call. Growth (at least that measured in the altogether faulty way that we measure GDP – quantity not quality) is at the core of our being. Banking has fuelled that core essence. Reducing the scope of banks and other financial institutions to bring tomorrow into today is a huge macro-economic decision that national banks (like the Bank of England) have to take on responsibility for.

National Banks – their role in macro-economic management of the Banking System

This is not just about bank regulation – it is about the how (at a macro-economic level) the risks and uncertainties are managed on a national and on a world-wide basis. Systemic and earth-shattering breaks in the system can only be better managed when international macro-economic indicators are understood and somehow controlled.

Transaction taxes, capital ratios, splitting bank operations are, I repeat, micro-economic devices. Macro-economic devices now need to be devised and international mechanisms established that regularly evaluate the banks’ individual exposure to macroeconomic factors. (Buch, Eickmeier, Prieto – Macroeconomic Factors and Micro-level Bank Risk – 2010). Building a model of this exposure using 21st Century macro-economic modeling techniques and used within an international banking framework, could be the starting point to better management of extreme banking risk.

But, it will take a transformation of international mindsets and international agreements to take 19th Century economic and political models into the 21st Century. Technology has moved on and presented individual banks and financial institutions with the ability to further manipulate economies and left governments in their wake. This needs some rebalancing and governmental management institutions need to be set up to oversee the critical part banks play in our world and to establish the macro-economic monitoring systems that are needed to avoid economic collapse.

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One thought on “Banks and Time Travel

  1. Pingback: Banging the Cultural Drum for Banks | Common Threads

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