Banking: Global in life, national in death

By:
Louise Bowman
Published on:

The genesis of the current regulatory enthusiasm for bank subsidiarization can be traced back to September 2008.

The behaviour of Lehman Brothers immediately before its announcement of Chapter 11 is what has kept global regulators up at night ever since.

"When Lehman went bust every dollar, pound and euro that the bank had was shipped back to New York, which left nothing there to keep the international subsidiaries going," says a top regulatory lawyer for an American bank.

More than $8 billion was transferred from Lehman’s European headquarters in London to its New York base on September 12 2008, just before the bank’s collapse over that weekend. It is cash repatriation of this kind that the regulators are trying to address in forcing subsidiarization on the banks.

"The new rules are designed so that national regulators will not face a Lehman problem in the future and if a global bank goes bust it can be resolved in an orderly manner," says the lawyer.

The challenges for national regulators of regulating the global activities of domestic banks were clear to see long before the current financial crisis. In 1995, the UK’s oldest bank, Baring Brothers, was brought down by the activities of a single futures trader in Singapore.

"Maybe the Bank of England couldn’t afford the air fares to send people out to Singapore to get to the bottom of it," muses one banker today. The UK and the Netherlands are still pursuing Iceland over losses their domestic depositors sustained following the collapse of Landsbanki in October 2008. The two countries filed a claim of IKr556 billion ($4.85 billion) plus interest and costs against Iceland’s Depositors’ and Investors’ Guarantee Fund on February 10 this year.

Mervyn King’s oft-cited quote that banks are global in life and national in death has real resonance here. The Federal Reserve, which spent as much on emergency loans to foreign banks as it did to domestic ones in the early days of the crisis, has long been worried about the build-up of foreign branch assets in the US.

There has been a massive influx of foreign money to the US with clear implications for the stability of the markets. "This regulation is bad for banking efficiency but good for local control," says Adrian Docherty, head of FIG advisory at BNP Paribas. "Local taxpayers foot the bill when things go wrong: that is what is driving this and it is unstoppable."

Even from within the banks that are now facing the increased costs of this regulation there is some sympathy for what the regulators are trying to achieve.

"This has the hallmark of something where they are genuinely trying to address the fact that governments may well still rescue banks in a crisis," says one banker. "The regulations are attempting to protect local economies as much as they can in the realization that this always will be the case. They reason that by dealing with multiple companies instead of one they are protecting their own country from the impact of a non-domestic bank failing.

"People recognize that if there is some kind of catastrophic failure then they are in a better situation."