Banking and Society

by Admin 7. January 2014 11:42

The simplistic view...


So we are still in this debate about the banks and it seems to now be centring on whether banks are contributing positively to society. Some of the braver, or more foolish bank CEO’s have joined the debate and it is a great one for the press on a slow news day. And of course every time a bank gets fined, makes a big profit, makes a loss or is otherwise in the news it is worth tacking the banks and society question on the end of whatever piece is being done or giving it a slant in that direction.

I thought that I would do something useful for society myself and settle this debate once and for all, or at least explain it to the point where you can make your own minds up. If the argument is that banks do or do not contribute to society, how do we measure their contribution and what do we compare it with? Take traffic wardens; do they contribute to society? You can argue that without them there would be terrible congestion on our roads, or perhaps we would just sort ourselves out. What about estate agents, can we live happy and fruitful lives without them or would we all be unable to find a roof over our heads?

Now banks traditional role in society was to lend money; both to consumers and to businesses. The phrase you are looking for is “to oil the wheels of industry”. I can explain why this is a good thing but I suspect you get it. Now if banks did that their would be no debate about whether they were contributing to society or not, the trouble however is two fold. Firstly banks need to make a profit and lending to companies and individuals who don’t pay it back rather creates a problem for them. Banks also tend not to make much of a profit lending money and this leads to the second problem, which is that banks get involved in things that aren’t strictly speaking banking.

Again, without trying to burden you with the details, banks have devised many interesting activities that can make them large profits. The challenge with some, indeed most of these activities is that they can’t really be said to contribute to society though they do contribute significantly to our GDP and balance of payments. This then helps the UK, though probably at the expense of other countries. Without these activities then the UK is worse off and society is potentially better off, or at least in no way harmed by their absence. And because these activities do tend to make the banks obscene amounts of money, the people who are good at them tend to get paid what the rest of us sometime feel are obscene amounts; and there in lies the rub. It is the pay that we really feel bad about. We all put up with traffic wardens and estate agents but if they were paid millions per year we might be up in arms about them too.

So what should we do with these non-banking banks? Well to make that decision even more complicated you need to consider that banks today tend to be universal. They provide wholesome banking services and dubious other services and they form a perfect synergy, with the balance sheet of the retail and commercial bank supporting the trading and derivatives services of the investment bank whilst the profits of the investment bank make the bank successful and more able to lend and support businesses and consumers. And let us not forget that our banks need to compete with all those huge foreign banks.

It’s a tricky one. My experience is that it is much easier to take a strong moral stance when you aren’t up to your neck in the brown stuff. The idea that a light touch approach to regulation of these institutions is hopefully dead and buried forever. Clearly those who commit frauds within banks need to suffer the full wrath of the law, but as to the deeper debate about what our banks should look like; well perhaps we aren’t ready to make a final pronouncement until we have cleaned up the mess which they certainly had a hand in causing. Ultimately society will need to decide what it wants from its banks and what it is prepared to put up with. At the moment I think that society, fueled by the media is being somewhat schizophrenic on the subject...


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