HSBC's Flint outlines conflicts at heart of banking

In a revealing speech, Douglas Flint, group chairman of HSBC and the new chairman of the IIF, outlines the regulatory and political conflicts that bedevil the world of banking and finance.

In a closed-door conference in London last week, organised by trade group TheCityUK, Douglas Flint, group chairman of HSBC, gave a speech in which he highlighted the massive contradictions banks face. The speech was important, not just because of the cogency of what he said, but also because it shows that bankers are finally starting to stand up to the illogicality of the regulators and governments.

The wave of new banking regulations being formulated in the West will have profound effects around the world. In Asia, trade finance lines are already being pulled by European banks retreating into home markets and non-core businesses are being sold. The financial industry is under threat from a host of new rules: Basel III, CRD IV, Mifid II, Solvency II and of course Fatca.

Flint’s arguments are also important as he has assumed the chairmanship of the Institute of International Finance (IIF), the global industry body for international financial institutions. It is worth quoting this speech at length because this will be the platform of argument that banks and bankers will need to make in coming years in the face of regulatory overkill.

“As we rebuild the regulatory system we need to be wary of two traps — firstly, we should also be wary of using the phrase ‘never again’ — if we learn anything from history it is that we are destined to repeat mistakes whenever we believe that we have solved definitively the cause of the most recent crisis. Secondly, we have to avoid being over-prescriptive, as we cannot foresee every possible scenario.

These traps are seductive, pandering to the basic human desire for there to be meaning in life, for there to be some kind of order to show that fate is not capricious — ie, somehow we all get what we deserve. Indeed, it is a core objective of both political and economic systems to promote a comforting perception of predictability. Ever more today, society does not want to acknowledge unpredictability, particularly around economic outcomes — we want to believe an unwelcome outcome is the cause of failings that need both to be compensated and cause revisions to be made to the system to reinforce predictability and so restore confidence in the future.

This leads us to seek out definitive solutions to identified problems. But just because a solution is demanded of course does not mean there is a soluble problem. Many commentators would make this observation about the eurozone today. If only it were as simple as moving a toggle switch between ‘austerity’ and ‘growth’.

And there are many such conflicts challenging the restoration of growth:

· We want stability as well as growth, we promote economic growth as well as fiscal austerity;

· We want banks to lend more and also grow capital both in absolute and ratio terms;

· We want the banking system to have access to private capital at the same time as we debate the future shape and capitalization of its activities and restrain dividends;

· We want to see more competition in financial services but we don’t want to see the higher returns that would attract external private capital;

· We want to see fewer interdependencies without losing the benefits of scale;

· We continue to incent the banking system to lend ever more to governments and then agonise what happens if the same governments don’t/can’t pay;

· We want the system to respect market signals but then we don’t like what ratings agencies say;

· We want greater transparency but fret about how immediately markets react to events not yet able to be responded to a policy level;

· And finally, while we have made great strides in defining what we don’t want the system to do we have made less progress in determining what we want the system to look like when we are finished.

We continue to pose important questions which underpin many of the challenges in getting the financial system back to business as usual.

· For example; are there gaps in coverage? Shadow banking?

· Is the aggregate of all the measures both complete and in train duplicative or reinforcing? Who is responsible for ensuring this?

· Is there coherence between banking, insurance, pension fund and asset management regulation? Again whose responsibility is it to check this?

· Is there market capacity for the capital raising and funding assumptions being made?

· Does the understandable focus of national fiscal authorities towards limiting their contingent risk to domestic deposit bases risk unwinding many of the elements of globalisation of economic activity?

· If fiscal authorities don’t want the contingent risk of the banking system does anyone else and at what price?

· If a consequence is to unwind globalisation to some degree and establish a ‘home market’ bias — does this impact the availability and cost of financial services delivered to multinational groups?

· Does this change the competitive landscape between companies domiciled in Europe versus the US versus Asia? Does this matter?

· Does the public policy concern over systemically important institutions create a greater probability of stability because of their higher capital requirements and supervision or does it further concentrate activity into these institutions because of their elevated status; current experience suggests that in times of great uncertainty customers prefer the largest institutions.

· Does prospective bail-in of creditors change positively the probability of a future bank failure because of greater market led discipline or does it simply reallocate systemic losses away from the future income of society (through taxation) towards society’s current and future savings (via insurance and pension funds) — and if so have we deceived ourselves that we have achieved very much?

· And finally, is there too much focus on products, platforms, infrastructure, capital and liquidity because they can be defined and measured as opposed to focussing on behaviour which is much more difficult to pin down objectively?”

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