Business

Why have we left bank reform to technocrats?

BBC business editor Robert Peston on why new banking rules are so important

Credit (please) where it's due: on Thursday, yesterday and today, the BBC has covered the historic agreement on new capital and liquidity rules for banks in the main body of its bulletins.

It's a certainly not the easiest story to explain, but it's hard to think of one of more importance to our future prosperity.

So I regard it as something of an achievement that the BBC has provided its reports outside of the ghetto of specialist financial news. Which is not true of many mainstream news organisations (the FT and Wall Street Journal are of course splashing the story).

I don't suppose most British people, including our lawmakers, would therefore have much of a clue that agreement has been reached on the most important global initiative to learn the lessons of the 2008 banking crisis and correct them.

On the basis of a pact between central bank governors and senior regulators, every important developed and developing country has agreed to enact laws to raise the amount of capital that banks have to hold as protection against future losses to more than treble the current minimum.

If we want to avoid future financial crises that impoverish us all, we've got to pin our hopes on the effectiveness of these new rules - which also cover the amount of cash banks have to hold against the threat of runs, the longevity of their own debts and the risks that banks attach to different kinds of loans (among other things).

And, by the way, whether the rules work or not, they'll have an effect on the price and availability of credit - probably raising the price and shrinking the availability, for the period of implementation (at least) and possibly for longer.

So if you can find me many stories in the past few days or months that matter as much, then I'll acknowledge I'm living on a different planet from you.

For banks, what's been concluded is the equivalent of a climate-change deal: an attempt to reverse potentially lethal global warming in the financial sector.

But do you remember how much coverage there was of the Copenhagen climate change conference, both the hopes attached to it and the massive disappointment when it failed?

What was concluded in negotiations behind closed doors in the Swiss city of Basel last night wasn't much less important to all of us than the Copenhagen debacle. So where's the media circus? Where are the screaming headlines?

Unlike the politicians at Copenhagen, the central bank governors and heads of banking supervision who form the oversight body of the Basel Committee on Banking Supervision - which decides these vital rules for banks - well, they don't exactly court the media.

For television and radio, they are a nightmare, because they rarely give interviews for broadcast. Their press conferences are few and far between. And their press releases are hopeless at translating the arcana of bank regulation into concepts that most can understand.

But, you might say, that should surely double the resolve of the press to hold them to account.

Well, it's not really happened. I've banged on and on and on in posts here about the importance of what was being discussed by the Basel Committee. And many of you have responded with apt and passionate comments.

But you are the exception. There's been little populist debate about how much capital and liquidity banks ought to hold for our own welfare. We've been presented with a fait accompli.

And most would argue that the media hasn't exactly done a brilliant job in shining a light even on that fait accompli.

You might also ask where our MPs have been while unelected central bankers and regulators have trampled on territory that they would surely regard as their own, viz the fundamental laws that affect how British domiciled banks conduct their affairs.

So if you felt there had been something of a democratic failure here, you might have a point.

But I suppose we can always hope that in another 60 years, when a banking crisis next precipitates a great global recession, we'll do a slightly better job as citizens at holding the technocrats to account.

You can keep up with the latest from business editor Robert Peston by visiting his blog on the BBC News website.

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