Financial Regulators are as fallible as the rest of us

John Redwood, in defence of the banker’s, asked whether the regulator’s in the part four years has engaged in socially useless activity.

Unusually, I came to the defence of the regulator.

Regulators, even if nominally independent, work within the current political & economic climate. They would not have called for increasing capital requirements during the boom, as there was no visible reason to do so. After all, we had “ended boom & bust” – due to the prudent handling of our economy by the then Chancellor. Where was the risk factor that justified such a measure?

 If a Regulator had called for tougher rules, he would have been lambasted by the press, and criticized by most expert economists. Financial Experts would say capital requirements could be lower, as risk was now diversified throughout the global financial system.  Politicians would have said that such unilateral action would jeopardize London’s position as the World’s No.1 financial centre. If the Regulator had sufficient stature, then the £ would have gotten a bit jittery, and some shares in the banking sector would have taken a tumble. A government spin doctor would have come out we a speech saying “what I think you will find the Regulator actually said was .…” – and then say something that was the opposite, or renders the comments meaningless.

After a few days of ducking the issue, the Chancellor would have given his full support, followed the next day with the Regulator’s “voluntary” early retirement (or movement sideways).

A similar picture was with the Central Banks. By cutting interest rates after the bubble burst and again after 9/11 we obtained an asset price bubble. The US or the UK were not going to call a halt by raising interest rates, as it would have been both politically unpopular and raised exchange rates. The normal market adjustment, with a mild recession was averted. The long-term consequence was system imbalances becoming so large that the eventual correction nearly wrecked the financial system.

 The lesson to be learnt is not tougher and/or more detailed regulation. It should be a humility concerning our powers to intervene, as they can have consequences that we cannot foresee. Furthermore, markets have rushes of exuberance that will, sooner or later, be corrected. Avert the market correction and you build up trouble for the future.  Interventionism does not cure the problem of imbalances, merely delays it.


Alan Greenspan convinced everyone that he had achieved this status, but turned out, in the long run, to be wrong.

The biggest current imbalance is in the housing market. The slide has been halted by near zero interest rates, but will resume when those rates get back towards normality. Why do I say this when average house prices are around the long-term average of four times average earnings? Because interest rates are well below their long-term average for existing borrowers. When they revert to around 5% that new borrowers are paying, and when unemployment peaks at 3 million plus (with some coming from the state sector), then the supply of houses will exceed demand.

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