New financial regulations will harm households and small businesses

The financial sector breathed a sigh of relief this week as the Basel Committee’s recommendations for new rules on banking regulations were announced; stock markets around the world rallied. Rules on the amount of capital banks must hold to cover risk – and the extent to which reserves must be liquid – are less stringent than expected.

The financial sector breathed a sigh of relief this week as the Basel Committee’s recommendations for new rules on banking regulations were announced; stock markets around the world rallied. Rules on the amount of capital banks must hold to cover risk – and the extent to which reserves must be liquid – are less stringent than expected.

Should the left be annoyed? Shouldn’t the banks be hit harder for causing the recession and compelling taxpayers to bail them out on a massive scale?

It would be easy to answer yes. In welcoming the news, Bank of America chief-executive Brian Monyihan was quoted as rejoicing that “there is a need to strike a balance against losses while not harming future prosperity”. This is a false and arrogant dichotomy – Monyihan wants us to believe that there is a zero-sum trade-off between stability and prosperity.

Tougher rules, so the argument goes, would have made the global financial system more resilient, but at the price of prosperity given that banks’ ability to invest at will would have been curtailed. This is evidence of an incredibly short memory: it wasn’t Basel III that caused the economic downturn. In fact, it was the absence of regulation on banks that led the world economy to the brink of depression.

However, the weakness of Basel III should not be exaggerated. The main concession from the committee was simply that regulations will be phased in. The rules will involve significant change for many banks. Their profitability will be undermined, meaning that they are less attractive to investors, and their employees’ bonuses probably won’t be quite as vulgar.

And crucially, the cost of banking will now rise. Generally speaking, taking out a loan or a mortgage will be more expensive, even as the economy recovers, and savings products will be less generous. If the rules had been stronger, the cost of banking would have risen even further.

This is a genuine quandary for the left in the post-New Labour era. The Labour government’s vision of welfare was essentially an updated version of Margaret Thatcher’s property-owning democracy. Built on what Peter Malpass terms the ‘wobbly cornerstone’ of the housing boom, New Labour sought to achieve asset-based welfare.

We should all own homes and invest our savings, entangling our welfare fundamentally with the financial system. Alan Finlayson has defined New Labour’s approach as the ‘financialisation’ of welfare, citing the ill-fated Child Trust Fund, which locked our children into the financial system from birth, as a key example.

If the cost of banking rises, financial inclusion for ordinary people will become even more difficult. This is not to say we should bemoan the end of asset-based welfare: the financial crisis which led to Basel III put an end to the fantasy land within which New Labour’s policies were pitched.

But what is the alternative vision? Such questions have not been raised at all during the Labour leadership election. Candidates have been generally supportive of tougher restrictions on banks, but none have wondered what this means for low-income people if they can’t get a mortgage or make money from their savings – or if small businesses can’t raise capital.

The only candidate really able to even get his head around all this, Ed Balls, was of course centrally involved in dreaming up asset-based welfare in the first place.

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