BoE King throws another grenade into bank-regulation debate in bid to shape legacy
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BoE King throws another grenade into bank-regulation debate in bid to shape legacy

Outgoing Bank of England governor Mervyn King's calls for a tigher leverage ratio swims with the popular tide in favour of stronger bank regulation and sets Carney up for a showdown with the UK Treasury.

UK bank regulation has been a consistently moving target during the past four years, triggering investor flight from banks’ equity and bond products, amid fears that new rules will render business models uneconomic. As a result, large-cap UK bankshave traded at a discount to their respective book values, partly amid a ‘regulatory uncertainty’ premium, exacerbated by shifting sands at Basel and at the European level. What’s more, UK regulators have given mixed signals about how to balance the need to boost credit growth while stabilizing the financial system. On the one hand, the UK continues to pursue a stricter capital requirement than its European partners, while calling for a quicker transition period for Basel III compliance. UK authorities impose a 10% core tier 1 binding ratio – versus Europe’s c7% to 9% target – to be supplemented with an additional 7% bail-in debt requirement. What’s more, the Bank of England (BoE) has publicly beaten up banks over their inadequate reportingand apparently disingenuous risk-weighting for mortgage portfolios, in particular, triggering investor fears over the quality and level of provisioning of retail-focused lenders.

As one analyst says: “With Vince Cable [UK business secretary] calling the City a ‘cesspit’ and the BoE questioning what banks have on their books, it’s fairly obvious why credit supply has been weak and why banks’ share prices are trading at cheap levels, despite the slightly improved economic backdrop.”

 Carney (L) & King; Source: Reuters

On the other hand, in January, Mervyn King, the outgoing BoE governor, supposedly embarked on a road-to-Damascus conversion in favour of pro-bank regulatory norms by spearheading Basel’s shift to a diluted liquidity coverage ratio. However, the move immediately sparked accusations of regulatory capture, while UK chancellor of the exchequer George Osborne’s humiliating isolation in Europe this week, in rejecting a cap on bankers’ bonuses, has reignited populist ire over the banking reform push. What’s more, various BoE initiatives, to counter the pro-cyclical tightening in financial conditions, have frequently been derided as a banking subsidy rather than a credit boost for borrowers in the real economy, such as the hitherto disappointing Funding for Lending Scheme and extended liquidity facilities, with both seen as a boost to banks’ net interest margins rather than as a fillip to loan growth.

In addition, the flurry of recent scandals, such as the mis-selling of insurance products and Libor manipulation, have reinforced calls for ever-tighter financial regulation to reduce the incentives for risk-taking, and reignited the question whether universal banks are still too complex to manage or simply too big. Despite the public opprobrium, Osborne has rejected the full separation of banks’ investment and retail units in the upcoming banking bill.

It’s this populist fervor against banks and regulators that formed the backdrop to King’s last appearance at the UK parliamentary committee on banking standards on Wednesday, where he lashed out against bank lobbying, and called for a punitive leverage ratio as well as the full nationalization of RBS to ensure the troubled lender can be broken up into a “good” and “bad” bank.

Here are some choice highlights of his testimony, courtesy of Reuters, and ask yourself if it is still 2009: 

King on so-called ‘regulatory capture’:

"I was surprised at the degree of access of bank executives to people at the very top – it was certainly easier access to people at the very top than the regulators had."

"[Before 2007, regulators] knew that if they were tough on a bank the chief executive could go straight to Number 10 ... Over time this has changed clearly since then, but the access probably hasn't."

Leverage ratio:

"I would be much happier with leverage ratios of 10 to 20 than I would be with 25 or 33."

"There are some aspects, particularly on leverage, where the financial policy committee would like to have greater powers and where we feel that the original Vickers proposals on leverage were the right ones and that the concessionary leverage that's been made was a mistake and it would be better to go back to the original Vickers proposals."

Too big to fail:

"The unknown question is whether the powers that we've been given will in fact be adequate to get rid of the too-important-to-fail problem."

"My own personal view is that it would be sensible to have a proper review after four or five years not just of the ring-fence but of a whole range of issues that I would put under the umbrella heading 'Has the United Kingdom solved the too-big-to-fail problem'."

When the levy breaks

Some analysts were left distinctly unimpressed by King’s appearance. Dan Davies, a bank analyst at Exane BNP, tells Euromoney: “This was a slightly mischievous appearance by King. On the one hand, we are meant to believe massive changes to the liquidity ratio was a sensible and technocrat-led initiative while the dilution of the leverage ratio is a result of bank lobbying. In other words, it leaves the impression that things that are sensible can be credited to King while less popular things are other people’s fault.”

One bank analyst adds the sting: “His appearance made clear that he is very happy to talk about bonuses and ‘casino culture’ of banks as a distraction from the BoE's flawed banking supervision in the crisis, principally the failure of Northern Rock.”


To King’s credit, he refrained from lashing out at bankers’ bonuses, and said this was a “distraction” from the real debate about aligning shareholder incentives with bank employees and reforming the structure of business models. What's more, King sensibly called for the leverage ratio to be a prime policy tool to assess banks' capital strength, rather than a marginal regulatory requirement. 

Aside from RBS nationalization, it was clear King reckons there is plenty of unfinished business with respect to beefing up banks’ loss-absorbing equity cushions to take into account systemic and economic risk, citing the perennial shadow of too-big-to-fail. This call for a tighter leverage ratioechoes Mark Carney’s comments at a grilling at the UK's Treasury Select Committee in February. The incoming BoE governor said the global financial crisis has underscored the allure of imposing a high leverage ratio for banks, a non-risk-based prudential tool to complement minimum capital adequacy requirements, citing the resilience of Canadian banks – supervised under a strict leverage ratio regime – in the crisis.

In other words, King and Carney disagree with the UK government’s recent white paper, in response to the Independent Commission on Banking (ICB), led by Sir John Vickers, that decided to apply the current international Basel leverage ratio target of 3%, rather than the ICB-recommended 4.06% ratio, which, in any case, King says is still too low.

Controversially, however, King did not make it clear whether he supported an “adjusted” leverage ratioto ‘net’ out derivatives and/or account for off-balance sheet liabilities, in order to reduce the disruptive impact of this regulation – sowing confusion among some bank analysts.

Nevertheless, whatever the substance of King’s testimony, one thing is clear: UK banks are unlikely to regain their valuation and lending poise until the final blueprint for the UK’s regulatory regime emerges, potentially bringing an end to opaque pronouncements and contested capital recommendations from policymakers. But King, in possibly his last in-depth testimony on the banking system as BoE chief, has already nailed his colours to the mast: UK regulations are extraordinarily lax when it comes to leverage, given the systemic risks it poses to the economy.

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