22 January 2010

Obama Crosses the Line

A clear dividing line: some want to reform banking regulation, others want to reform the banks.

Yesterday the US administration crossed from regulatory tinkering to real reform. In Britain it is Mervyn King and Lord Turner, rather than the government, who want banks tamed.

The "Volcker rule" means that banks which take deposits will not be allowed into the Casino - an excellent first step.

Some institutions will try to escape by giving up their status as banks. Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley only became bank holding companies during the crisis. It is not politically possible for them to escape government rules. Obama's goal is to cut back financial firms to a scale where they can not threaten the stability of the system. He will need some version of the quack principle- if it quacks like a duck it is a duck.

I would like to see more. The authorities - possibly the Fed - should have powers to limit leverage (that is the total amount financial firms borrow) and certain types of derivatives should be banned.

Much of the commentary will be on the politics. Is this Obama's response to the defeat in Massachusetts? I think not; look at the cover of last week's Economist when it called for Obama to come out fighting. The FT had something similar this week.

Will Britain follow suit? I think so; fear of the City of London losing out to other financial centres has held the government back. Britain can adopt the same rules as apply in New York and push them through the EU so that they apply equally in Frankfurt.

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