October 5, 2008


To halt the bank tsunami, slash interest rates (Vince Cable, 10/05/08, Times of London)

Fortunately there are lessons to be learnt from previous financial tsunamis.

The first relates to monetary policy. There is now a severe monetary squeeze taking place, even though official interest rates are negative in real terms in the United States and low elsewhere, including Britain. Banks are hoarding cash and trying to avoid all but the safest customers. After the disappearance of new mortgage lending, lines of credit are being pulled from companies and individuals.

History teaches us that interest rates should be slashed during a banking crisis to stave off deep recession. This has happened in the United States, but not in Britain. The approach of the Bank of England’s monetary policy committee, dictated by its mandate, is to balance deflationary against inflationary risks with, in practice, occasional small adjustments in interest rates. The committee is in danger of becoming irrelevant in an environment where short and medium-term inflationary risks are massively outweighed by the danger of a once-in-a-lifetime collapse of the financial system.

Central bank independence must be maintained – not least because, after the crisis has passed, intervention by governments could have big inflationary consequences. What is required is for the chancellor to write to the governor saying that on a temporary emergency basis the committee should assume a central role in countering the crisis with a large cut in interest rates. A big cut – conceivably as much as two percentage points – would have a big psychological impact on consumer and business confidence when it is most needed.

Second, a far-reaching approach is required for the banks. Hitherto the Bank has provided unlimited liquidity (at a penalty rate and against sound security). Beyond that, banking crises have been dealt with on an ad hoc basis with, now, two nationalisations, an officially orchestrated merger (Lloyds TSB/HBOS) and various takeovers (Alliance & Leicester by Santander; smaller building societies folded into Nationwide). That approach has been right. The danger, however, is that the collapse in investors’ confidence in banks could result in the remaining high street banks being picked off, one at a time, resulting in a succession of messy nationalisations or forced mergers.

There is a case for a more systematic approach. A good model for managing a banking crisis is Sweden. After the collapse in the property market in the early 1990s, not dissimilar from America and Britain today, the banks had insufficient capital and there was a confidence crisis. The focus was on recapitalising the banks. Debt-equity swaps and new equity issues were generated under a government-managed programme. The government either nationalised banks or acquired a stake in them. When the banks’ balance sheets were sufficiently robust and economic conditions had improved, the government sold its stake (and made money for the taxpayer).

...depends on a belief that temporarily high oil gas prices represented inflation.

Posted by Orrin Judd at October 5, 2008 7:25 AM
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