Financial Services (Banking Reform) Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 7:28 pm on 11th March 2013.

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Photo of Steven Baker Steven Baker Conservative, Wycombe 7:28 pm, 11th March 2013

My bank manager is named Guy Birkby, and I am sure that he would not wish to be compared to Dave Fishwick because he is an employee of Handelsbanken. I moved my money to Handelsbanken specifically so that I could have a local bank manager who knows me. Indeed, when I ring the bank people recognise my voice and off we go, and that is a far better way to do business. This particular combination of personal relationship and personal liability—in Dave’s case, not Handelsbanken’s—is a way to re-establish trust. What are the other ways of doing that? They are unlimited liability, which I have discussed, trustee savings banks and mutuals. I am afraid that one of the big flaws of the big bang was that it encouraged this limited liability corporate form where nobody ends up taking the risk and it falls to the taxpayer—it is a disaster.

On ring-fencing, I very much share the comments made by the Father of the House, my right hon. Friend Sir Peter Tapsell. I am extremely sceptical that ring-fencing will work. I think that the efforts in the Bill are extremely brave, and of course I shall support it, but this is the last brave attempt to prop up the contemporary monetary orthodoxy. I shall come back to that subject after talking about depositor preference. When we combine the ring fence with the particular instance of taxpayer-funded compensation, there is a real problem that the same old incentives are being preserved. Commercial risk is being subsidised by the taxpayer and to deal with the consequences of having encouraged that reckless behaviour at taxpayer expense an attempt will then be made to regulate those risks away—it has not worked before and it will not work now.

On depositor preference, I have learnt through my last five or six years of working with academic economics that if there is one subject we cannot resolve it is who owns—or should own—the money in someone’s bank account and what the contractual obligations should be. In other words, if someone’s money is on demand and they can have it back any time, should there be a 100% reserve—it is their property and the bank is safekeeping it—or should it be the bank’s property which it can use to fund itself?

That question is extremely difficult to resolve, but I shall just cite a speech I have used before, in which the Earl of Caithness said:

“The current crisis, like previous ones, emanated from a base of judicial decisions. Prior to 1811, title to the money in depositors’ accounts belonged to the depositor. However, in that year, decisions in Carr v Carr and, in 1848, Foley v Hill gave legal status to the banking practice of removing depositors’ money from their accounts and lending it to others. Since then, title to depositors’ money has transferred from the depositor to the bank at the moment when the deposit is made.”—[Hansard, House of Lords, 5 February 2009; Vol. 707, c. 774-75.]

That goes very much to the point about the money creation process on which Mr Meacher and I had an exchange. There was a time when this fractional reserve process created money, but that has now become meaningless, as banks are able to lend with almost no restraint. As I explained in my maiden speech, that is the fundamental reason for this massive boom-bust cycle.

I try never to have an idea of my own on these matters, so let me come back to what Irving Fisher wrote in 1935, when he brought forward a plan for 100% money. He said:

“The essence of the 100% plan is to make money independent of loans; that is, to divorce the process of creating and destroying money from the business of banking. A purely incidental result would be to make banking safer and more profitable; but by far the most important result would be the prevention of great booms and depressions by ending the chronic inflations and deflations which have ever been the curse of mankind and which have sprung largely from banking.”

So I return to David Fishwick, because he knows instinctively, as a business man, that if he takes somebody’s money on demand deposit he should 100% reserve it, in case they want it back.

By this point, I will have upset my friend Professor Kevin Dowd, who was a tutor to Andy Haldane at the Bank of England. I have had the privilege of meeting both of them to discuss these matters. Kevin is a free banker—he would believe in fractional reserves on demand deposits, without a shadow—but in his banking system there would be no limited liability and no taxpayer-funded deposit insurance, banks would issue their own notes and money, at bottom, would be gold. That commodity backing would limit the banks’ ability to create deposits.

There is also a problem in our banking system with accounting, which is another area where I have introduced a Bill. Since I did so, significant progress has, thank goodness, been made on one aspect—loan loss provisioning, which Members can refer to in the media. However, there is another problem with international financial reporting standards accounting for banks, which is mark-to-market accounting. We have heard today the story of how banks have securitised lending and sold it. In a chronically inflationary banking system where banks lent money into existence and, as we heard from another hon. Member, were encouraged to make bad loans—they were creating money to make bad loans into property—they of course wanted to get this off their books. So they wrapped it up in a bond, insured it with a derivative and sold it. They did not even have to sell it. They just took this instrument, moved it from one accounting book to another and they could then immediately mark its value to market. What does that mean in plain terms? It means that one can take 30 years of cash flows, unrealised, from mortgages not yet paid, and by marking them to market within a bond, around a vehicle that is all these mortgages securitised, one can take bad loans—loans that probably will not be repaid—and take it all as profit in capital today. You can pay yourself a massive bonus out of cash not realised—out of capital.

If hon. Members and the Minister wish to know more about how this works, I hope that they will look at my colleague Gordon Kerr’s book, “The Law of Opposites: Illusory profits in the financial sector”. Gordon has spent many years engineering financial products. In a sense, he is a dissident banker gone good. In that book, he explains how those accounting problems, combined with easy money, create so many of the problems that are, as Fisher said, the curse of mankind today.

At bottom, there will ultimately turn out to be two banking reforms that we should adopt. As I have said before—this is particularly the case for the question of the status of demand deposits, gold as the ultimate backing to money and so on—we will find in the end that the Bill is an honourable and brave attempt to prop up a contemporary monetary orthodoxy that is failing. This is the end of the post-Bretton Woods monetary order through which we have been living. We were told that it was a banking crisis. We learned a little later that it was a debt crisis. In a minute, people will realise that what we use as money is debt, that what the banks deal in is debt and that the vast majority of the money in our accounts was created by somebody else taking a loan. When that is accepted, we will discover that this is a monetary crisis. We will then find that there are two plausible ways to reform money and banking.

We could have 100% reserves on demand deposits and the preservation of state control over money and banking—that is, paper money, fiat money, the central banks planning interest rates, taxpayer backing and so on. That is the sort of plan advocated by my friend Jesús Huerta de Soto as a route to what we really should do, which is get the state out of money and banking. We should have a free banking system, as proposed by my friend Professor Kevin Dowd. He has brought forward a plan called “two days, two weeks, two months”, which would return us to a free banking system backed by gold within that time scale. It would not need regulation and it would be just and moral because people would take responsibility for the things they did.

This is not the first time that a monetary order has come to an end. By some calculations, in the 20th century there were about eight global monetary orders. The thing that is remarkable about the post-Bretton Woods order is not that it is ending but that it has lasted so long. I am afraid that I agree that this Bill is not enough, but it makes some progress and I hope that it will be the last attempt to prop up a contemporary banking system that cannot last.