Hark the words of Robert Jenkins, former external member of the Bank of England's financial policy committee, earlier this month:
"I fear that the banks have bamboozled government into believing that society must choose between safety and growth, between safer banks and bank shareholder value, and between a safer financial framework and a competitive City of London. These are all false choices."
Bad news, Mr Jenkins, your fears are well founded. On the evidence of Vince Cable's extraordinary outburst to the FT, the government has indeed been well and truly bamboozled.
The business secretary used and endorsed the phrase "capital Taliban" to describe Bank of England officials. The term is bankers' favourite way to insult the Bank and, aside from bad taste, there are two reasons why a cabinet member should not use it.
First, the criticism of the Bank's Prudential Regulation Authority (PRA) is plain wrong: asking banks to hold more capital should not impede lending.
Second, ministers should keep their noses out of the day-to-day judgments of the independent regulator.
This row has broken out after the PRA demanded that lenders achieve leverage ratios of 3% – that is, that they should hold £3 of capital to support £100 of lending. By no stretch of the imagination can 3%, implying a 33 times levered balance sheet, be regarded as an onerous demand. The Vickers commission argued for 4%, meaning a leverage cap of 25 times, and the US is heading towards 5%.
Nor is a 3% leverage ratio for British banks hard to achieve in practice. All the main lenders apart from Nationwide and Barclays are there already. Nationwide – conceivably an institution with a "safe" book of mortgage assets – has been given until the end of 2015 to fall into line. The PRA's verdict on when Barclays must conform is awaited eagerly, making the timing of Cable's comments appalling.
The key point is that more capital and more lending go hand-in-hand, as Sir Mervyn King stressed time and again when he was governor. "Capital supports lending and provides resilience. And, without a resilient banking system, it will be difficult to sustain a recovery," King said his last Mansion House speech.
Cable seems to have swallowed the bankers' line that the regulator is making them assemble vast sums of capital that could otherwise be used to lend to small businesses. No, that is not how the system works: to repeat, weakly capitalised banks won't lend because they can't lend. And getting more capital into the system looks a sensible policy when the starting point is a banking industry that is still hugely over-leveraged by historical standards. As Jenkins says, we don't have to choose between safety and growth.
Of course, it suits the lenders to muddy the waters. Barclays would be unpopular with its shareholders if it had to whack them with a rights issue to find capital in a hurry. Nationwide has a particular reason to worry because it is a building society without access to shareholder capital. But the PRA's job is to manage financial stability. By speaking out, Cable makes it harder for the Bank to be seen to act independently.
What if Barclays is next week given a Nationwide-style waiver to meet the 3% ratio by the end of 2015? Would that be because the PRA is satisfied with the current financial strength of Barclays or because the regulators have been intimidated by Cable and the Treasury, which apparently shares the view that jihadists are running amok in Threadneedle Street?
Mark Carney, the new governor, should be spitting blood. He's got a tough job. He doesn't need politicians who make it harder. Cable, who in opposition was quick to spot the danger in running an under-capitalised banking system, should know better.
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