Just read leading U.S. newspapers and one sees that Banker has become an unpleasant word as banks take in taxpayers' money and give nothing out. Then you have the endless blame game [“we didn’t force people to borrow money – yes, you did through enticing, pushy adverts and a rising property market incited greed, which you peddled!] as everybody loves to blame someone else as the global banking system continues to teeter on collapse as central bankers raise the amounts needed to save them and keep them going. So why do and did the banks need saving? The banking system in the last 50 years has gone from a source of loans in a cash society to the very financial artery of the economies of the developed world. They have their hands on every single transaction everybody makes all the time and they take a fee for doing it. Cash costs a lot to access now and as part of our modern culture we have accepted that cash is risky and a little Neanderthal. Take banking out of our lives now and economies just can’t function. Banks have managed to evolve into arteries and veins of our economic life. Without them the system can’t work. Maybe the solution is that they retreat from this complete role. Until then their business culture will continue under attack until, like veins and arteries, they allow the flow of the lifeblood of the economy, money, to flow unrestricted. Why suddenly, are they the modern Shylocks of our world?
The credit crunch started in the banks and they began to fail, dragging the rest of the economy into recession and possibly worse. This is life and a feature of the last hundred years, so what of it? It turned nasty when the Fed decided that if they were allowed to fail then the heart of the economy would be in danger of stopping. Along came Treasury Secretary Paulson and TARP.
TARP to Make the Banks Lend?
TARP funds were directed at re-capitalizing the U.S. Banks in the belief that a clean-up of their Balance Sheets would prompt them to return to lending easily into a receding economy. But little of that has happened. A while back [if you want this article to be sent to you, please ask for it via [email protected] ], we featured a piece on “government and banks – who rules”, in which we contended that the two would eventually clash in the current economic environment. It may have seemed an unlikely event at the time, but we have reached that point now. One leading banker said, “We’re not going to change our business model or our credit policies to accommodate the needs of the public sector as they see it to have us make more loans.”
But the purpose of the bailout was to precipitate lending by the banks. The first objective of TARP bailouts clearly failed!
Banks Won’t Lend
An overwhelming majority saw the bailout program as a no-strings-attached windfall that could be used to pay down debt, acquire other businesses or invest for the future. But Treasury secretary, Henry M. Paulson Jnr, said in October that banks should “deploy, not hoard” the money to build confidence and increase lending. He added: “We expect all participating banks to continue to strengthen their efforts to help struggling homeowners who can afford their homes avoid foreclosure.” But a Congressional oversight panel reported on Jan. 9 that it found no evidence the bailout program had been used to prevent foreclosures. Why not? Are the banks simply taking opportunistic positions, ready to plunder the economy of businesses failing solely because of a shortage of working capital? Isn’t their job to keep the economy going? Bankers would argue that that is a secndary function contingent on their primary objectives being reached – profita after prudence! In itself, this adds uncertainty to the future.
Why aren’t the banks willing to lend easily to take everybody out of recession? The answer is that they were not designed to act as arteries and veins allowing the unrestricted flow of money through the system, a role that they have persistently attempted to evolve into over the last 50 years. Their first priority is to be profitable. After all, banks are corporations and committed to making profits as wisely as possible. Not now, we answer. Profits and prudence may well be the guiding principles of bankers in the true capitalist fashion but they have moved on from being simple corporations. They affect the very fabric of all developed societies on this earth. As they have seeped into every single transaction or payment we make they have become a vital part of the infrastructure, just as electricity or water are in our lives. That changes things dramatically. Particularly so, in that banks have invisibly integrated themselves into each other through syndications, interbank lending and the like. With this role, like our blood system comes new responsibilities and duties that bring them closer to government. Now with the support of the government and the taxpayer behind them they must adjust or continue to earn the Shylock title?
Banks have Taxpayer’s Money on Balance Sheet
The major U.S. banks are no longer parochial corporations, but part of a national framework in most parts of this world, but particularly the U.S. In many they walk hand in hand with central banks. Central Banks themselves, although deemed independent, are also a direct influence on the economy, on consumers, or put another way, voters/taxpayers [who are saving their bacon right now]. Hence they have, of necessity, come under the ‘pale’ of government [part of the domain of government], whether they admit to it or not. No matter how much bellowing of capitalist principles we hear, nothing will alter that, only a shrinkage of bank’s role and a return to cash transactions will change that. After all banks have to adjust to the wide role they play in the economy particularly now that taxpayers have invested in them without receiving the usual equity that comes with such rescues. Taxpayers invested in them to help them to lend and for no other reason except to keep them going. Banks now affect every single money transaction made and have to work in synch with the broad economy and government, now. Solely isolating prudence and profit, as guiding principles, won’t cut it any more.
They may well bleat that they don’t lend because as deflation sets in, risks rise in a deflating economy. Of course risks rise and the economy deflates further because the banks won’t lend. A typical Catch-22, but this alarms us as the banks profit in such an environment taking assets under management to be sold as conditions improve. After all that is business, they say. But the taxpayer is helping them, ostensibly, so that they may well lend into the economy to stave off deflation and turn the economy back to growth. Or is government just being gullible? We doubt that!
Government to Confront Banks
No, government is now losing patience and calling on the banks to lend or else. Governments in Europe and the United States are moving more forcefully to assure that bailed-out banks lend more money to offset the depression that has is about to engulf both continents. A day after officials of the incoming Obama administration promised to take steps to force banks to lend, Britain outlined details of a new £100 billion, or $147.5 billion, plan to limit banks’ losses from troubled assets in exchange for their pledge to increase the flow of credit. This will be legally binding, the British prime minister said. In France the ‘or else’ is described by none less than President Sarkozy who has said the banks must lend or be seized. The French have a new plan that would require banks receiving new capital injections to make “precise commitments,” including giving up bonuses this year. Denmark announced an $18 billion aid plan for its banks, saying it would inject the funds on the condition that the recipients increase lending. Last week, the Irish government nationalized the Anglo Irish Bank, rendering equity stakes worthless.
Even private equity groups a source of huge amounts of capital to the economy are now seeking ways to by-pass the banks and go direct to clients for capital and for its distribution. Is this the beginning of the move away from banks? Unless banks make some fundamentals adjustments to their underlying business cultures they will diminish in importance.
Gold Better than Banks?
In the changing U.S. and developed world banking role banks are now being deemed to have an economic role fused with that of government, whether they like it or not. Bankers will claim that political interference into the banking industry will be the biggest risk facing them. Bankers can continue to restrain capital flows based on risk measurement and refuse to accept that they also have to serve the economic good of the nations, but this will be self-destructive. This is a major departure from capitalist and U.S. cultural principles in the banking industry, never to be seen again. They can choose to tow the line or be steamrollered by government in the days to come. The transition to their new role will be accompanied by doubts and fears that make markets dependent on the free flow of money through the system, subject to the volatility that comes with fear and uncertainty.
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