Money and health at Davos

BBC business editor Robert Peston at Davos

Davos: The World Economic Forum is all about contrasts.

This year's entrance is a hideous white plastic inflatable intestine.

But the sun on the glistening snow-capped Alps is sublime.

I just collided with one of my teenage heroes, the original leader of Genesis, Peter Gabriel.

And later today I will moderate a session on the future of the eurozone where speakers include ministers from Greece and Germany and a senior member of the European Commission.

Yesterday I bumped into a senior executive of the US healthcare insurer and provider, Humana, who told me his business was pulling out of the UK - because the company was fed up with "all the changes taking place in the National Health Service" (in the words of this executive).

Humana felt comfortable working with Primary Care Trusts. But doesn't see how it can make a return out of the soon-to-be-implemented system of GP commissioning.

Which, some would say, raises a question for the British government about how much help it will receive from the private sector in implementing the new commissioning system.

From domestic health to global money.

I had a rivetting chat with the chairman of a mega bank. He suggested that central bankers and regulators on the Financial Stability Board may achieve the opposite of what they intend with their plan to impose a capital surcharge on so-called Globally Significant Financial Institutions (giant banks like Citigroup, Deutsche Bank, Bank of America, Barclays, HSBC, RBS, UBS et al).

This battle-weary banker believes that if the mega banks are singled out in this way with a requirement that they must hold more capital than other banks as a protection against losses - and if they are also regulated more intensively than smaller banks, which is already happening - then investors will see the mega banks as the safest banks in the world.

That would lead to capital and liquidity flowing out of smaller banks and into the mega banks over the longer term. Which means that the mega banks would become even bigger, relative to smaller banks and to the financial resources available to governments for bailing out banks in a crisis.

In other words, trying to make the mega banks safe with an additional capital tariff could have the perverse effect of making these banks bigger and more powerful.

Since almost no amount of capital can ever completely guarantee the safety of a bank, a mega bank capital surcharge could exacerbate the risk that these banks become so big that they are too big for any country to save, should they run into difficulties.

And of course there would be implications for the intensity of competition between banks and the political clout of these beasts - implications which many would describe as unhealthy.

To put it another way, if it is thought that size in banking brings incremental dangers, structural reforms - cutting them down to size, for example - may be necessary, whatever is ultimately decided on additional capital requirements.

Update 09:27: There is a bit of a divide opening here in Davos between the bankers and the rest (leaders of non-financial businesses, academics and so on).

The bankers are mostly saying that the banking system has been fixed, that they now understand all about risk (having apparently known less than an infant about risk before August 2007) and that regulators are meddling twerps who will ruin the global recovery.


The director of the LSE, Sir Howard Davies, in his FT Davos blog quotes one industrialist as saying that bankers are apparently not on planet earth.

That is a point of view that others are sharing with me this morning. "Do they have no idea how the rest of the world sees them?" is how one well-known business leader put it to me.

He was responding to an outburst by Jamie Dimon, chairman of JP Morgan, in a session this morning, in which Mr Dimon complained that his bank wasn't given enough credit for the good things it did and does.

Which may well be so. But becoming cross won't help.

As I pointed out earlier, the bankers have some decent points to make about possible perverse and unwanted effects of some regulatory changes.

But if they want to influence the debate on the future of the industry, implying that they know best and regulators, politicians, the media and the rest of the world know nothing may not help.

Update 10:23: Bantered with Mayor Boris about his looming choice between Spurs and West Ham for the Olympic Stadium, touched the hem of the garment of the blessed William Jefferson Clinton, told T Blair he's looking well (which he is).

I hate myself for being so shallow.

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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