Banking reform vital, but levies aren’t the answer

Thursday 8 April 2010

According to a new briefing from the Adam Smith Institute (ASI), proposals to introduce a new ‘bank levy’ would do little to correct the problems in the banking sector, and act as a distraction from other, more pressing reforms.

The briefing also expresses skepticism that governments would ring-fence the proceeds of such a levy for future crises, suggesting that they would soon become just another tax to finance current expenditure.

Indeed, it has already been reported that Alistair Darling favours national discretion to use the proceeds of a proposed EU-wide levy as the government sees fit, rather than reserving funds for the future.

According to Miles Saltiel, the author of the ASI’s briefing and a City financial expert, imposing such a levy is also likely to prevent banks from rebuilding their reserves – a key economic priority, in his opinion – as well as holding up lending.

Saltiel, who is a senior fellow of the Institute, also dismisses the ill-thought out populism behind ideas such as the ‘Tobin tax’, punitive regulation of hedge funds, and swingeing tax increases on bankers.

Instead he argues that policymakers should focus on six key issues:

(1) The government should abolish future expectations of “too big to fail” and encourage competition by breaking up the nationalized banks. The Williams & Glynn Bank, ABN-AMBRO and NatWest should all be filleted out of RBS, while HBOS and TBS should be split out of Lloyds.

(2) The government should also ensure that failed banks can be run down in an orderly way, by requiring so-called ‘living wills’.

(3) The UK should campaign for derivative contracts to be moved onto regulated exchanges, rather than being traded over-the-counter. As well as reducing counter-party risk, this would be good business for the City of London.

(4) The British government should take the lead in advocating tougher international capital and liquidity ratios. They should also press for stricter rules on what counts as capital.

(5) The UK should restrict how much its banks trade on their own account in capital markets by requiring higher capital reserves to be held against such activity.

(6) Legislation should require honest accounting and transparency. Governments – whose off-balance-sheet obligations dwarf those of the private sector – must not be exempt from such rules.

Tom Clougherty, the executive director of the ASI, added:

“Banking reform is one of the most pressing policy challenges facing the UK, but too often our politicians resort to crude populism rather than grappling with the real issues. This needs to change – having a more stable, more competitive banking sector is vital to our future economic well-being.”

ENDS

The Lesson of a Levy on Banks is published by the Adam Smith Institute, 23 Great Smith Street, London SW1P 3BL. A PDF can be downloaded free of charge at www.adamsmith.org/files/a-levy-on-banks.pdf

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