I thank Mr Meacher for securing this debate, which is a valuable one to be having in the House. I draw the attention of hon. Members to my entry in the Register of Members' Financial Interest, which is a legacy of my spending 18 years in the banking industry. Before Labour Members get a bit too excited by that revelation, as many have unfortunately done in the past, I should say that for the past three or four years I felt that the profession of banker was possibly the worst to have in the eyes of the public, but that was before I became a Member of this illustrious House.
The motion states that we want to
"prevent a recurrence of the financial crash".
Obviously we are all united on that, but it is important that we examine the causes of the crash, which we could debate for a long time and go round in circles. I am sure that many rational people will disagree on the responsibilities of banks and bankers. I may have misunderstood the motion, but it seems to suggest that banks are entirely responsible for the financial crash. That is wrong and it does not do justice to Members of this House or to our constituents in preventing something like this from happening again.
The financial crash happened because too much money was chasing too few assets-financial assets or real assets such as real estate. There are three principal reasons for that, the first of which was that world financial reserves, particularly in the east, were growing at a substantial rate. Indeed, they continue to do so, as more people in the west consume goods from the east. To give just one illustration, China's financial reserves in 1990 were $165 billion but today they are $2.65 trillion. Those reserves needed to find a home.
The second reason is that commodity prices have grown substantially, partly as a result of the growth of the east and other emerging markets, and that has led to a substantial increase in sovereign wealth funds, both in the middle east and in other markets. Those funds also needed to find a home, and they created a colossal wall of money when combined with the financial reserves.
The third reason is something that bankers have called the "Greenspan put". Alan Greenspan became chairman of the Federal Reserve in 1987, just before the Wall street crash, and one of the first things he did when he found a problem in the financial markets and a potential crisis brewing was to lower interest rates as quickly and as substantially as he could. That happened again when the US Federal Reserve led the way after the dotcom bubble burst in 1991, again when Russia had problems and there were problems in Asia, and it has just happened again. Bankers have got used to that approach and it results in what the markets call a "put", whereby they feel they can sell assets if things go wrong. That has encouraged bad behaviour and a moral hazard: the idea among many bankers of "heads we win, tails the taxpayers lose".
In addressing these issues, we must not forget those key facts about what caused the crisis. However, bankers did play a significant role and there are things about banks that we need to examine. Although there are issues to address in respect of financial derivatives, I would not make that the key priority. The first thing to examine is the idea of retail banks and commercial investment banks acting as one entity, because that seriously needs to be looked at.
I started working in the banking industry in New York in 1992. Under the Glass-Steagall Act, which was in place at the time, the bank I worked for had to have a completely arm's length relationship with its retail banking division. That made a big difference to the risks the bank took or even contemplated taking. That situation changed in the late 1980s in Britain, when the big bang took place and the implied Glass-Steagall arrangement disappeared, and it formally changed in the United States in 1999 when that Act was removed. It is vital to examine that. The second thing to look at is, as has been mentioned, banking capital itself.