Business

Is entente impossible between governor and banks?

BBC business editor Robert Peston on Mervyn King's latest interview

Mervyn King's interview with the Telegraph shows that the intellectual and emotional gap between the governor of the Bank of England and the UK's big banks is now of almost unimaginable size.

His view of what they do and how they do it is a universe away from their own self-image.

It is where he compares the banks with manufacturers that he is particularly damning.

Many manufacturers, for King, " care deeply about their workforce, about their customers and, above all, are proud of their products". But what about banks? "There isn't that sense of longer-term relationships. There's a different attitude towards customers. Small and medium firms really notice this: they miss the people they know," he says.

The financial industry, he claims, is poisoned by the idea that "if it's possible to make money out of gullible or unsuspecting customers, particularly institutional customers, that is perfectly acceptable".

And he contrasts that attitude with decent businesses which "keep a clear vision of who their customers are, and are run by people who don't think they should simply maximise profits next week".

He also returns to his theme of the investment banks as gamblers in a casino, complaining that over the past 25 years, banks have increasingly "taken bets with other people's money" and where "the rules of the game are that they get bailed out if it all goes wrong".

In the frantic taxpayer-subsidised casino, all trust between the players evaporated: "Financial services don't like the word 'casino', but instruments were created and traded only within the financial community. It was a zero sum game. No one knew which ones were winners when the crisis hit. Everyone became a suspect. Hence, no one would provide liquidity to any of those institutions."

Anyway, I've written countless times about how he and his colleagues at the Bank of England believe passionately that the guarantee to big banks that they'll always be bailed out by taxpayers has to be removed - as a necessary but not sufficient condition for making the financial system stable, robust and socially useful.

King is looking to the Banking Commission to come up with the requisite reforms (see earlier posts for what he and the Commission have in mind) and then to the Chancellor of the Exchequer to show the resolve to implement such reforms, in the teeth of an inevitable response from the banks that a great British industry would be imperilled.

But for me the significance of his remarks on this occasion are rather different.

Sustainable economic recovery in the UK requires the banks to regain some sense of confidence in who they are and what they do. They would argue that this project isn't helped when they are vilified by arguably the most important figure in their lives.

Not only is Mr King the individual who - more than any other, through the power of the Monetary Policy Committee to set interest rates - will determine whether their over-borrowed customers will be able pay their debts in the coming uncertain months.

He is also shortly to become the most important influence over whether new dangerous bubbles are pumped up and over the monitoring of risks taken by individual banks - because the government has decided to transfer to the Bank of England what is known as macro-prudential regulation and micro-prudential regulation.

According to the recent Treasury paper on regulatory reform, the governor will chair the new Financial Policy Committee, which will assess whether banks in general are behaving in dangerous ways, and the new Prudential Regulation Authority, which will monitor whether individual banks are taking excessive risks.

He will be, without any near challenger, the most important person in the lives our banks. So it matters that he appears to have so little respect for them.

Those who run the banks go further, and allege that he doesn't understand what they do. Some of the things that board members of banks have said to me about Mr King are unprintable.

Plainly it would be unhealthy for there to be a chummy relationship between the individual charged with keeping the banks in order and the banks themselves, between the headmaster and students, between the governor and governed.

There are many who believe that one of the greatest flaws in the regulatory system that's being swept away is that the Financial Services Authority in the few years before the Great Crash of 2008 was simply too respectful of the big banks and their boards.

But whether it is optimal for there to be this degree of froideur and mistrust between Mr King and the banks, well that is by no means obvious.

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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