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Credit rationing keeps banks honest

A lunch with the chief executive of one of the leading universal banks in Europe gives a clear insight into what it means to head a bank in 2010.

The discussion begins with the added public scrutiny of individuals – "unfortunate, but inevitable," the chief concedes.

Conversation turns to the business mix of the different divisions within his group. Most of his peers talk in terms of percentage of earnings between the retail and wholesale parts. This chief executive instead discusses it in terms of the amount of capital he allocates to each business line. Get used to it – it’s the language of 2010 and beyond in a world of high capital requirements and scarce provision of it.

But his main concern is different. He thinks it is increasingly inevitable that the political backlash against banks will lead national regulators within the eurozone to require that banks keep capital for each operation within national boundaries. This, he complains, runs completely against the concept of the free market within the common European currency.

Worse still, more than 18 months after the collapse of Lehman Brothers, he still has no idea what set of rules his bank will have to comply to.

Jacques de Larosière, former managing director of the IMF and former governor of the Banque de France, warned once again last month that prospects for economic recovery are threatened by uncertainties about reform, which have been heightened by the recent proliferation of national proposals.

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