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Vuvuzela politics won't beat the banks

On the eve of the G20 meeting in Toronto this weekend, which will see further attempts to bring about a recovery from global economic and financial crisis, differences have emerged between the US and Europe. Representatives of the world's 20 richest nations will be arguing over how to "manage their divergence".

US president Barack Obama has criticised the European imposition of austerity programmes of spending cuts and tax increases. At this point, the US is much more concerned with increasing spending to stimulate demand than reducing sovereign debt. This international tension is the political reflection of the battle between opposing teams in the Capitalist Rescue cup.

When the debt-fuelled global financial system went into meltdown in 2008, there was a sudden rush of enthusiasm for a new age of regulation that would, it was said, prevent a recurrence of the conditions that resulted in the worst credit crisis since the 1930s. The ghost of economist John Maynard Keynes was raised from the grave.

In the meantime central banks and governments around the world turned to the injection of ‘liquidity’ in the form of trillions of every currency to prop up the previously hugely profitable but now bankrupt commercial and investment banks and non-bank financial institutions. The marvellous rediscovery of the fool's gold of ‘quantitative easing’, the modern, electronic equivalent of printing money, allowed balance sheets and credit to be further expanded – miraculously treating like with like.

Controversy raged around the world about the actions to be taken over institutions judged ‘too big too fail’. Some were indeed ‘taken over’ by the state. Others were allowed to go to the wall.

Many of the best brains in banking and finance were set to work, tasked with designing a package of measures that would restore a degree of sanity to the madness that had drowned the world in a tsunami of unserviceable credit and debt. The team in favour of regulation led by the Basel Committee on Banking Supervision, have been on the pitch, slugging it out with their opponents, amongst them the Institute of International Finance. The IIF are worried about the damaging effects of regulation. Basel’s captain Nout Wellink says “Raising capital and liquidity standards will reduce the probability of the event of a crisis. We will get greater stability of economic output and associated increases in welfare.” The IIF fought back with a warning that “global growth in the eurozone, the US and Japan would be cut by three percentage points between now and 2015 and as a result, 9.7m fewer jobs would be created over the period.”

Amongst the most important of the reforms put forward was to be a return to a more prudent relationship between a bank’s easily available capital assets and the amount of money it lent out.

Despite the chorus of calls for regulation, the pressure for a return to growth continues unabated, and the banks have lost little, if any, of their power. As a result, synchronised bubbles and speculative excesses will re-emerge to undermine those who seek to regulate the financial markets.

As the G20 opens, the Financial Times reports that “Plans by global regulators to compel banks to set aside billions of dollars in extra capital to cope with future crises are to be pared back after intense lobbying by the industry. The committee is likely to shelve the idea that banks should be forced to maintain a longer term 'net stable funding ratio' that aligns the maturity of their assets and liabilities.”

And then comes the bottom line. “Analysts had also calculated that the Basel III reforms, were they implemented in conjunction with new taxes around the world – such as the liability tax announced by the UK government this week – could have cut a typical bank’s return on equity from 20 per cent to 5 per cent.” For the capitalists and the masters of finance that would be an entirely unacceptable attack on profitability.

The rest of us need a way of ending the rule of the banks. Protests, resistance, shaking fists or even blasts from the vuvuzela won’t be enough. We need to build the forces which can take the economic and financial systems into social ownership and recast them on a not-profit basis.

Gerry Gold
Economics editor
25 June 2010

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