One of the world’s best writers, Michael Lewis, on his former professor, and one of the greatest thinkers about corporate governance, Mervyn King.
The way we do banking, Mervyn King thinks, needs to change. As it turns out, he has a powerful idea for how to change it. “The End of Alchemy” is about more than this one idea — which doesn’t actually appear until roughly 250 pages into the book. To the idea itself he devotes 40 seriously interesting pages, and I have here only a few hundred words. But this idea is the heart of his book and worth telling people about. So here goes:The first thing that King thinks must be done is to separate the boring bits of banking (providing a safe place to deposit money, facilitating payments) from the exciting ones (trading). There is no need, he thinks, to break up the existing institutions. Deposits and short-term loans to banks simply need to be separated from other bank assets. Against all of these boring assets, banks would be required to hold government bonds or reserves at the central bank in cash. That is, there should be zero risk that there won’t be sufficient cash on hand to repay people wanting to flee any bank at a moment’s notice — and thus no reason for those people to flee.The riskier assets from which banks stand most to gain (and lose) would then be vetted by the central bank, in advance of any crisis, to determine what it would be willing to lend against them in a pinch if posted as collateral. Common stocks, mortgage bonds, Australian gold mines, credit default swaps and whatever else: The banks would decide, before any crisis, which of their risky assets they would be willing to pledge to — basically, pawn with — the central bank. The riskier the asset, the less the central bank would be willing to lend against it. Any asset so complicated that it couldn’t be explained satisfactorily to the central bank in three 15-minute presentations wouldn’t be eligible as collateral. Everyone would know, if any given bank ever required a loan from the central bank, the size of the loan the central bank would be willing to extend. The central bank would go from being the lender of last resort to what King calls the pawnbroker for all seasons.It would also have a handy, simple rule to determine if any given bank is solvent: the difference between its “effective liquid assets” and its “effective liquid liabilities.” The effective liquid assets would consist of the securities the bank held against its deposits (government bonds, cash), plus the collateral value of its riskier bets as judged by the central bank. The effective liquid liabilities would be the money that could run from the bank at short notice — deposits and loans of less than one year made to the bank. The rule — call it the King Rule — would be that a bank’s effective liquid assets must exceed its effective liquid liabilities. If they don’t, the bank is insolvent, and its deposits would be moved without any panic or trouble to a bank that isn’t.