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Davos 2010: Central bankers seethe behind closed doors

By Tim Weber
Business editor, BBC News website, in Davos

Davos 2010
The regulators are talking, but are the bankers listening?

Davos has a new blood sport: banker bashing.

Everybody at the World Economic Forum is tearing into them, from President Nicolas Sarkozy to investing legend George Soros.

It may be clean good fun (and a great spectator sport), but all the tough talk has a very serious edge.

Slowly, the outlines of a consensus are emerging for far-reaching reforms of the financial sector. The bankers here are fighting a rearguard action - seemingly without realising that they are making their situation even worse.

My colleague Robert Peston reported the astounding comments from a leading banker , suggesting that he and his colleagues can't possibly have been paid too much.

It's exactly these kind of comments that are goading regulators and politicians to get tough.

Angry central bankers

Central bankers don't do public tantrums.

But the measured tones of the European central bankers here in Davos barely hide how angry they are over what they see as being taken for a ride.

We wanted to see sensible behaviour by banks, but we didn't see it, so we need collective action
A European central banker

Look at the UK's 50% tax on bankers' bonuses, says one. "This was not designed to generate revenue, but to avoid it. But the banks still paid their bonuses. A better tax rate would have been 100%."

The bankers, he implies, clearly didn't get the message.

Backed by the G20, regulators are currently doing some detailed work on a global regulatory framework - looking at various options and the impact they will have. The framework is scheduled to be ready by the end of the year.

Over lunch, one of the top central bankers guiding the process promised us pretty comprehensive reforms. "The new world will look more like the 'new new', not the 'new normal'," he threatens.

He ticked off a list of potential changes, from new accounting rules to new counterparty arrangements to liquidity buffers.

The central banker particularly dwelled on a plan to introduce "capital requirement charges" to punish banks that don't save money for a rainy day.

Why such drastic action?

"The banks had a great year," he says. "The good results were only driven by the 'for free' insurance that the governments sold to them." But did the banks use the windfall to bolster their balance sheets? No, "everybody is putting it into bonuses and dividends".

And, turning slightly red, he says: "We wanted to see sensible behaviour by banks, but we didn't see it, so we need collective action."

Pitfalls

Bankers are quick to point out what could go wrong.

Too much regulation, too high taxes, and banks could not afford to lend any money at all, even if they would want to. It would be a certain way of choking any economic recovery.

The central bankers acknowledge that, and promise that all the new rules and regulations, the "de-risking" and "de-leveraging" of the banking sector would be slowly phased in.

Davos 2010
Everyone is getting a chance to vent in private

"This won't be a one-size-fits-all model," says one of them.

Politicians, too, see the benefits of being tough on banks.

A parade of politicians from around the world here in Davos has lavished praise on the principles (if not always the detail) of US President Barack Obama's plan to reform the banks.

The leader of the UK opposition, David Cameron, reiterated his support for a global financial insurance levy, to make sure it was the banks who would finance the next bail-out, not the taxpayer.

And he loves regulation too, promising to turn the Bank of England into the UK's centralised City watchdog, should his party win this year's general election.

The next catastrophe

Andrei Kostin, chief executive of Russia's VTB Bank, quotes Ronald Reagan: "The most terrible words in the English language are: I'm from the government and I'm here to help" - but acknowledged that the crisis proved this adage wrong.

Rather, says Jean-Claude Trichet, president of the European Central Bank, without government intervention the world would have faced a "catastrophe".

The complaints from bankers that poor regulation caused the crisis is like you have a massive fire, the fire brigade comes in and you blame them for flooding the house
John Evans, advisor to the OECD

"In my opinion," he says, "it is currently underestimated that we were very close to a full-fledged depression."

"We need to find a global solution" to fix the "fragile" global financial system, Mr Trichet argues, and warns that merely "local, national solutions" would be a "recipe for [the next] catastrophe".

Some bankers have got the message.

"The relationship between banks, government and society has changed irreversibly," says Peter Sands, chief executive of Standard Chartered bank.

"The bankers," he admits, "have not helped themselves at all. We've been simultaneously tone-deaf and shooting ourselves in the foot."

But he also warns that there is a trade-off between how safe we want to make the banking system, and how efficient and effective it can be to support the real economy.

Still, there's so much blame to go around, it would do more bankers good to accept some of it, says John Evans, who advises the OECD on trade union issues.

"The complaints from bankers that poor regulation caused the crisis is like you have a massive fire, the fire brigade comes in and you blame them for flooding the house."



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