In the FT, John Plender reviews Mervyn King’s “The End of Alchemy: Money, Banking and the Future of the Global Economy.” King diagnoses two problems underlying the crisis. First,
Interest rates today, he says, are too high to permit rapid growth of demand in the short run but too low to be consistent with a proper balance between spending and saving in the long run. The disequilibrium persists, as does a misallocation of capital to unproductive investments.
The second problem relates to the financial system and
the alchemy that runs through the financial system, whereby governments pretend that paper money can be turned into gold on demand and banks pretend that the short-term deposits used to finance long-term investments can be returned whenever depositors want their money back. …
King argues that Bagehot’s famous dictum on central bank crisis management — lend freely on good collateral at penalty rates — is out of date because bank balance sheets today are much larger and have fewer liquid assets than in the 19th century. Central banks are thus condemned in a crisis to take bad collateral in the shape of risky, illiquid assets on which they will lend only a proportion of the value, known as a haircut.
King suggests this lender of last resort role should be replaced by … a pawnbroker for all seasons. In effect, he offers an elegant refinement of the concept of “narrow banking”, which seeks to ensure that all deposits are covered by safe, liquid assets. In his system, banks would decide how much of their asset base to lodge in advance at the central bank to be available for use as collateral. For each asset, the central bank would calculate a haircut to decide how much to lend against it. Together with banks’ cash reserves at the central bank, this collateral would be required to exceed total deposits and short-term borrowings.
This central bankerly pawnbroking would facilitate the supply of liquidity, or emergency money, within a framework that eliminates the incentive for bank runs. It amounts to a form of insurance whereby the central bank can lend in a crisis on terms already agreed and paid for upfront …
The system would displace what King regards as a flawed risk-weighted capital regime ill-suited to addressing radical uncertainty. Today’s liquidity regulation would also become redundant. But banks would still need an equity buffer, with King seeing an equity base of 10 per cent of total assets as “a good start”, against the 3-5 per cent common today.
The current shortfall of fully liquid assets against deposits — the alchemical gap — could be eliminated progressively over 20 years, during which time the expectation would grow that banks would no longer be bailed out. The system would apply to all financial intermediaries …
Update: The Economist‘s reviewer writes:
… Lord King wants banks to buy “liquidity insurance”. In normal times banks would pledge collateral to the central bank, which would agree to lend a certain amount against it, if necessary. Banks would thus know in advance precisely how much help they could get in the event of a meltdown, making them behave responsibly when times were good.