Tuesday 6 August 2013

Smaug and the bankers

The novelist John Lanchester has built up a formidable knowledge of banking for a non-banker and is wielding the results regularly in the London Review of Books, which I have just started reading and very much enjoying (thank you, Jonathan!).

In fact, his latest article 'Let's consider Kate' succeeded in changing my mind completely about bank regulation.  I had become so focused on the way that the investment banks are corroding the real economy that I had come to believe that regulation was an irrelevance, compared to building an effective local banking system.

Lanchester remains focused on the threat of a second bank failure - which is only too possible - and what that could do to civilisation.  And of course he is right.

But the great advantage of getting a creative writer to look at these issues is that he can bring the facts alive in a way economists - with the possible exception of Keynes and Schumacher - generally fail to do (Keynes pinpointed Schumacher as his successor because of his ability to make the figures 'sing').

Lanchester has been pointing out the effects of the compensation paid out by the banks for their failures selling payment protection insurance, explaining that these sums have had more impact on the real economy than all the failed Funding for Lending schemes, and he conjured a wonderful image of the banks like Smaug, with their piles of gold, opening an occasional greedy eye.

It was with this image in mind that I read reports yesterday where HSBC chairman Douglas Flint promised to find ways of getting around EU bonus caps (100 per cent of base salary, or 200 per cent if shareholders agree), so that they could pay 'fair' bonuses to bankers in their non-EU operations.  HSBC chief executive, looking a little like Smaug in the photographs, says that the 'new rules' would be highly damaging to them, because they need to be able to compete in local markets.

I see his point, but the bonuses are corrosive in other countries, just as they are here.  They create inflation for the rest of us, and property inflation in particular.  They are a perverse instrument for management in any situation and, in banking, they can still destroy - as they effectively did last time by making the sub-prime crisis possible.  This is a global problem, not just an EU one.

Peering into the thoughts of HSBC confirms how perverse and dangerously remote from the real world the high command of banking has become.

But the picture of Smaug will stay with me, and the blackened destruction that dragons wreak on the cities of men when they arrive there.  Because the truth is, we still live in the shadow of a new Desolation of Smaug.

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