Wednesday, April 20, 2016
To me, the best justification for an inquiry into the banks is that they still don't seem to have got the message. They've been caught treating their customers badly, but so far they've shown little sign of contrition - sorry about the few bad apples, but I didn't know - and little willingness to make amends.
For years they've been locked in a race to maximise profits. They've put profits and executive bonuses ahead of the interests of their customers, and seem keen to resume profit maximising as soon as the fuss declines.
We need to keep the fuss going until the bank bosses realise how unacceptable we find their behaviour. Only then may they accept the need to stop incentivising their staff to exploit their customers' vulnerabilities, even at the cost of a little profit.
But if you think we have trouble with our banks, you should get out more. So far, at least, we've been let off lightly. I've just been reading the latest book about the banks' central role in causing the global financial crisis of 2008 and the Great Recession it precipitated.
Almost eight years later, the recovery has been anaemic and looks like staying that way for years yet. If China's slowdown becomes a "hard landing", it's likely to be because the financial crisis has finally caught up with it, too.
The book is Between Debt and the Devil, by Lord Adair Turner, who took over as chairman of Britain's Financial Services Authority just as the crisis struck.
Among the many reservations that may be expressed about the "financialisation" of the developed economies - the huge expansion in the share of the economy accounted for by the banks and other providers of financial services over the past 30 years - Turner is particularly critical of all the credit creation - lending - the banks have done.
For decades before the crisis, in every developed economy, bank lending grew at two or three times the rate at which the economy grew.
Central bankers and other economists came to believe this was normal and natural; how you achieved a growing economy.
In reality, it just meant that when the mountain of credit finally collapsed, plunging the world into its worst recession since the 1930s, many households and businesses were left deep in debt.
According to Turner, it's this "debt overhang" that's doing most to stop the major economies returning to healthy growth. As part of the initial response to the crisis, governments shifted much of the banks' own debt onto the government's books.
This did nothing to diminish the overall amount of debt, just made governments reluctant to increase their spending to support the economy.
But it's the continuing debts of businesses and households that do most to explain the continuing sluggishness of the major economies. When your debt far exceeds the value of your assets, you cut your spending to the bone so as to use as much of your income as possible to pay down that debt.
Trouble is, when so many others are doing the same, their spending cuts cause your income to fall, leaving you with little to use to repay debt. The economy can't really recover and, collectively, it makes little progress in "deleveraging" - getting its debt below the value of its assets.
This is the bind the North Atlantic economies find themselves in.
Turner says the huge growth in bank-created credit has been particularly pernicious because the banks much prefer to lend for purchases of real estate. They do little lending to big businesses investing in expansion, and much of their lending to small business is secured against the owner's home or other property.
Trouble is, with the banks infinitely willing to lend for housing, but with the supply of land in desirable locations strictly limited, the inevitable result is to bid up house prices.
This explains why - though local economists staunchly reject the thought - when foreign economists look at our stratospheric house prices and record rate of household debt, almost to a person they see an asset-price bubble that must one day burst.
Turner devotes much of his book to proposing radical ways the major economies can extract themselves from their unshakable debt overhang and return to healthy growth, and to proposing ways governments can curb their banks' unending credit creation so as to ensure it's a long time before their excessive lending for real estate brings on the next global financial crisis.
But ever-increasing lending is the main way the banks make their ever-increasing profits. They would put up an enormous fight to stop governments clipping their wings in this way.
Which brings us back to the royal commission. Do we want to be governed by politicians deferring to their generous backers in banking, or do we want to send politicians and bankers alike a message that the interests of customers and the wider economy must come first?