Business

Bankers huddle in opulent setting

Hofburg palace in Vienna
Image caption Bankers met in an opulent corner of Austria's long lost empire

Leading figures from the world of finance have spent the last three days in Vienna wrestling with some contentious and complex problems.

The bankers aim to ensure their voice is heard at the G20 summit in two weeks time.

These discussions, which cover very modern issues, have taken place in a slightly incongruous setting.

It is a modern conference centre, with giant video screens and stage lighting, grafted on to a Viennese ballroom with chandeliers and ornate marble wall panels - a corner of a massive palace from Austria's long lost empire.

One speaker from the academic world called it the most opulent lecture theatre he had ever spoken in.

The occasion is a conference of the Institute of International Finance, the IIF, a kind of trade association for global finance.

Tougher rules

Regulation is one of the big themes here, and will be again at G20 summit in Canada.

And there is not the outright hostility to regulation that you might expect from a forum like this.

Indeed, in some respects there is an acceptance that tougher rules are necessary.

The delegates here know that banks are going to have to reinforce themselves financially.

Everyone I have asked also thinks this is something they should do, and that the rules should force them to do so.

An official forum called the Basel Committee is negotiating new requirements on capital and liquidity - the financial shock absorbers that protect banks from disaster.

'Need for balance'

But they are also warning that these new rules could weaken the global economic recovery.

The challenge according to Peter Sands, the Chief Executive of Standard Chartered Bank is to get the right mix "so you get the maximum benefits in increased stability in the financial system and he minimum negative impact on the economy".

If banks have to hold more capital relative to what they lend, it will make them safer, less likely to collapse.

Image caption Attendees included ECB chairman Jean-Claude Trichet (left) and Deutsche Bank head Josef Ackermann.

But it also means they will either have to cut back on lending or raise new capital, which could raise their costs.

And those costs would inevitably be passed on to the firms and consumers that borrow. That will have a wider economic effect.

Peter Sands says "credit is the oxygen of the economy and if it is less available and more costly, it won't stop the economic recovery, but it will act as a headwind."

So there will be further discussions in the Basel Committee about trying to find that elusive balance

The timescale will be an important factor - the longer banks have to raise capital, the less the likely effect on the economy.

On new capital rules, then, the view is quite nuanced.

A taxing issue

But you get a rather blunter response on the question of new taxes for banks.

The idea is not welcome.

The International Monetary Fund has recommended taxes to cover the cost of future crises.

It now seems unlikely that the G20 countries will go ahead in unison, but some individual countries might well take their own measures.

Urs Rohner, Vice Chairman of Credit Suisse, Switzerland's second largest bank, doesn't believe such taxes can make a useful contribution to preventing future crises.

He thinks it is better to have a system that enables a bank to fail without posing a threat to financial stability.

He believes that the real reason for the tax proposals is to raise money for government spending and to make banks pay for the damage they have done.

And there is the great mass of detailed regulation being considered by governments around the world.

Some people here do welcome aspects of the proposed new regulations.

Charles Dallara, the IIF's chief executive, says of the organisation's members, "we embrace regulatory reform and in some cases more intrusive supervision".

But he says the balance needs to be right.

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