The impossibility of financial regulation

Samizdata's Brian Mickelthwait has done a great job capturing Jamie Whyte's appearance on Radio 4 last night to discuss the failings of the Financial Services Authority (FSA). Jamie's analysis is, I think, spot on:

"[The FSA] did fail. But I don't blame it on the individuals of the FSA. I think that they have an impossible task. What's happened in banking is that because of government guarantees to those people who lend money to banks, explicitly in the case of retail depositors – you and me with our ordinary money in the bank, and implicitly and pretty reliably in the case of wholesale lenders to banks. Because they're government guaranteed, there is no price mechanism any longer in the banking market for risk. So banks can take as much risk as they like and without paying a price for it. Normally what would happen in a free market is that it would become more expensive for banks to borrow money. And that doesn't happen. There's no risk premium for banks taking larger risks, because the people lending the money realise that the government will bail them out.

"Now the effect of this is that basically the government is subsidising bank risk taking on a massive scale. And the job of the FSA is to counteract that. There are these rules – the Basel rules and so on about capital requirements. And then there are supervisors, regulators, people who go into the banks and check they're complying, and their job is to counteract the massive incentive towards risk taking that the government has already provided. Now the question is: can they do it? They obviously failed to do it. Can they, if they do a better job? And I think they can't.

"And the reason they can't is that there are almost infinitely many ways that banks can take risks. The rules will always specify some particular ways, and regulators will go in, looking at that stuff. Are they doing this or that? But the bankers are very clever and they can always come up with other ways of taking risks, and I just think it's a hopeless task that they've been given."