The G-20 countries are marching forward on high-profile issues such as banker pay, appropriate financial safeguards and disincentives for excessive risk taking. These are, however, relatively low-lying fruits.
The Holy Grail for some is the prospect of capitalizing on the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression to achieve historic changes such as supranational regulation, systemic risk mitigation and long-term changes in the consumption and savings habits of nation states.
Lest we jump ahead to the concept of macro-prudential supervision, let us observe the turf war that has broken out in the U.S. among the Federal Reserve, Treasury Department, OCC and FDIC (OTS intentionally omitted) over which entity is best equipped to protect consumers, govern systemically important financial companies and ensure financial stability.
Against this backdrop it is difficult to believe that the U.S. will subordinate its authority to world body oversight, regulations and restrictions. While we do live in a globalized economy, one should not therefore conclude that the rule of sovereign self-interest is weakened. Politics and economics are inextricably linked and the politics and economics that really matter are those at the country level.
In the U.S. the political willpower does not exist to significantly alter the current global alignment. Global equity markets are ascending in synchronization and high-profile government officials and economists are declaring the recession over. The window for change is closing while the business-as-usual mantra re-emerges.
Instead of a top-down prescription for the global financial malaise, a more practical approach may be to downstream and focus reforms and accountability at the firm level. Many financial institutions are retrenching, repositioning and recalibrating, frequently with executive leadership teams unchanged. A thorough analysis of bank leadership needs to be undertaken by regulators, boards and shareholders to review the steering of a bank into and out of the crisis.
Is the current management team best equipped to lead the bank? Will the current top brass, to paraphrase Chuck Prince, the former chief executive of Citibank, get up and dance as soon as the music starts playing again? Strong leadership and executive accountability are the needed antidotes. And let us hope that the leaders of financial firms can learn from past mistakes.
With the staggering financial losses produced by so many financial companies over the past two years, it is surprising we have not seen more turnover in the executive management suites. It seems that being at the helm of a business that produces persistent financial losses over a two-year period is not a condition grave enough to warrant automatic termination.
Many observers believe that this Great Recession is a once-in-a-lifetime event. If this becomes an exemption for past sins then management is absolved of responsibility. They get a pass. The financial meltdown caught everyone by surprise, conditions are horrible and we're all in this together. In 1931, John Maynard Keynes wrote: "A sound banker, alas, is not one who foresees danger and avoids it, but one who, when he is ruined, is ruined in a conventional way along with his fellows, so that no one can really blame him." Indemnification is appealing. There are, however, financial firms that have posted positive earnings throughout the crisis by making earlier decisions to not run with the herd into unacceptable concentrations of risk and esoteric financial products understood by few yet accepted by many.
It is clear that the U.S. government will make significant changes in the regulatory framework and institute more stringent requirements on banks for financial reporting, capital adequacy and liquidity (real, not phony). In this battle, the banks have engaged an army of lobbyists to guard against the government completely rewriting the rules of banking. In this respect, the lobbyists perform a needed role as a voice of the banking industry and a balance against the inertia that government currently has to impose change in all matters financial.
However, the banking industry should be careful to not coalesce around an "us-versus-them" mentality. Pushing back against the anathema of increased regulation can lead to an insular view of the situation, and in turn may lead banks to fail to undertake the introspection needed to evaluate their actions before, during and after the crisis.
A sacking of a high-profile bank CEO may placate the government or those in the populace that are infuriated with bankers. This is not what is being advocated here. It must, however, be asked: Are those at the helm when the ship ran into the iceberg best equipped to repair the hull and re-establish the ship's course? Interestingly, this is the same argument currently being used against calls for making the Fed the U.S. regulator of systemic risk.