Is the Financial Crisis Really Over?

    What is the risk of another financial crisis? The dust has begun to settle. The turbulent events of the past two and a half years seem to be over and the world is looking forward to a period of renewed stability and growth. Across most of the world there are plans afoot for the reform of the banking system to “fix” it so that the dreadful events that we were witness to so recently will not happen again. 2010 – The start of the second decade of the twenty first century is seen as a symbol of hope and a brighter future. How realistic are these hopes? Is it possible to really repair the banking and financial system? Can we avoid any future pain such as we have seen (and alas are continuing to see)? This is all good stuff, but realistically speaking the prospects for a quick “fix” are not at all good. In fact one need look no further than to the responses of governments and financial regulators to these recent events to see that the seeds of the next financial crisis have already been sown. And this crisis may not be so far in the future either. Consider the facts. The overall response of governments and regulators alike to the recent financial crisis has sent a totally wrong message out to the banks. This misguided response has vastly increased the possibility that the same events will repeat themselves in the not too distant future. To make matters worse, when the next crisis occurs countries may just not be able to take the strain. The events of recent days in Iceland regarding the reimbursement of the British and Dutch governments in the “Icesave Bank” saga and the ongoing financial problems in Greece are portents that the next crisis could be much, much worse. The single distinguishing feature of the 2007-9 crisis was the huge amounts of financial assistance that was literarily thrown at the banks. Governments across the globe went almost berserk to avoid a systemic collapse of their individual country’s banking systems. By taking this course of action governments simply reinforced the existent cavalier attitude of the banks. The banks who benefitted the most from the support of the state were in all probability the ones who presented the most serious risks to the financial system; the banks who should most probably been allow to go to the wall.   Because governments and regulatory authorities provided such massive assistance to banks and securities firms these governments have in effect created a sort of automatic disaster insurance fund. Bank executives now know that their banks will not be allowed to go under. This is going to lead the banking industry generally to their bad pre-crisis habits; habits of taking dangerous and unjustified risks once again, in the certain knowledge that that they will not be allowed to fail. “Too-big-to-fail” was (and is) the cry and governments have been all too eager to dance to this tune. A factor which is so conveniently ignored is that for many banks across the globe the pain is not yet over. These banks are going to continue to experience losses for some time to come. These losses could still be extensive, as foreclosures continue to mount amidst a stagnating property market and continuing high levels of unemployment. If governments could say with any absolute conviction that they would never, ever bail out another bank again, there would be some hope of averting a future crisis. However governments are fickle, driven by the winds of political opportunism. When the crisis returns, as it surely must, we will see a replay of what we saw before. Indeed certain recent developments at some of the banking culprits from the last round are a clear indication that some banks are back to their bad old ways with massive profits and obscene bonus payments becoming the norm once again. Clearly any attempts by various governments to “fix” the system have been a non-starter. To be brutally blunt – it has failed! And the same unfortunately applies too, to “fixes” that are planned. If they haven’t been started on yet the chances of them ever happening are less and less likely with each day that passes. Unless governments and regulators seriously look at the failed systems and repair them properly in a manner that avoids the current implied guarantees of support “no matter what“, we are doomed to relive the events of 2007-9 again and again and again.

    Stanley Epstein is a Principal Associate and Director of Citadel Advantage Ltd. , a consultancy dealing in bank operations and specializing in Operations Risk and Payment Systems. Citadel Advantage provides comprehensive range of Risk Management & Payments related Training Courses for banks and other financial institutions. Further information and details can be found at http://www. citadeladvantage. com

    For regular insights into payments & risk issues, visit Citadel Advantage?s blog at http://citadeladvantage. blogspot. com/

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