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It is time for a sane banking system that is fit for purpose

As the saying goes, insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. On this basis, those responsible for regulating the global banking and financial system should be locked up in an asylum.

The financial collapse in the autumn of 2008 was devastating and by many measures the contraction was greater than that experienced at the onset of the Great Depression of the 1930s, with some arguing plausibly that a greater cataclysm would surely follow.

This was thankfully avoided as the main central banks embarked on an increasingly extraordinary journey of easier monetary policy.

Almost a decade later we are still grappling with many of the negative consequences.

The shock was famously captured by a vocal champion of the prevailing system, the long-serving, then retired, Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan.

“Those of us who have looked to the self-interest of lending institutions to protect shareholders’ equity, myself especially, are in a state of shocked disbelief,” he told a congressional committee in October 2008. “The crisis has turned out to be much broader than anything I could have imagined.”

In the wake of the collapse, the evidence that something fundamental had gone wrong with the global banking and financial system was undeniable, and a rare consensus emerged that fundamental change was necessary and inevitable.

Incredibly, we are still waiting for that change.

For most of the past 300 years the Bank of England has played a central role in the development and management of the global banking and financial system.

While modern counterparts in Washington, Frankfurt and Tokyo wield more power today, they are all broadly modelled on the old lady of Threadneedle Street.

Small wonder that the most penetrating analysis of the global financial crisis, and its fundamental flaws, has arguably come from Lord King, the former governor of the Bank of England who retired in 2013.

Among much else that he says in his recently published book The End of Alchemy — Money, Banking and the Future of the Global Economy, King is characteristically clear about the continuing vulnerabilities of the unreformed system.

“Frenetic activity among the official community cannot conceal the fact that although much useful repair to the fabric of regulation has been made, nothing fundamental has changed. The alchemy of our banking system remains,” he writes.

Bank assets, mostly loans, are still supported by a relatively tiny sliver of equity, with the vast bulk still funded by debt.

Across the banking landscape of the developed world, the sliver of equity is still leveraged around 23 times such that a fall of just 4% in the value of bank assets would entirely wipe out shareholders.

There remains a massive mismatch between the generally long-term maturity of bank assets and the generally short-term maturity of bank debts.

Almost uniquely therefore, banks are still businesses that cannot survive without the backing of central banks and ultimately governments.

This unchanged and universal reality is likely to be confirmed once again in the coming weeks, this time in Italy which faces a financial crisis caused by €360bn of bad bank loans.

The fact remains that as taxpayers and investors, we are all still hostage to a fundamentally flawed global banking and financial system.

Notwithstanding the trauma of the post-Lehman period, there has been precious little progress in addressing the risks faced.

It is still difficult to argue with the stark conclusion of King as governor in 2010 that “of all the many ways of organising banking, the worst is the one we have today”.

Before the metaphorical men in white coats swoop, let us hope that his successors at the key central banks finally begin the difficult task of giving us a banking and financial system fit for purpose.

For many who have struggled since the autumn of 2008, the ransom to be free of the current flawed version has been more than paid.