The Treasury's latest response to the Northern Rock crisis seems to me a grave backward step in bank regulation.
I refer to the proposal that in future any Bank of England support for an ailing financial institution should be done on the hush-hush. Apparently, the Treasury and the Bank have convinced themselves that the Northern Rock crisis was all the fault of the media for telling people that it was being supported by the Bank. Hardly.
Northern Rock hit the buffers because its dimwitted board fooled itself into adopting a deeply flawed business model that couldn't withstand even the initial stresses of the nascent credit crunch last summer. It therefore went cap in hand to the Bank of England and, as soon as the news of central bank support became public, the queues started to form outside Northern Rock's branches. In future, says the Treasury, such support should be kept secret to prevent people with their savings invested in a failing institution knowing that their money might be at risk. I thought this was the era of transparency but I obviously got that one wrong.
I fully accept that by making public the need for central support you are likely to prompt people to worry about the security of their savings but surely they have a right to know. It just cannot be the right way of doing things in the 21st century to allow City bigwigs to fix up a deal - which may or may not work - behind closed doors and keep investors in the dark. It is a deeply patronising attitude that almost seems a throw back to another era.
It will be entirely to the good if the threat of having your investors know you are in trouble remains. It should provoke greater caution among managements who think they have come up with another "too good to be true" way of bucking the markets and leaving their competitors in the shade. The "What if?" testing of the risks in their business model should inject a greater note of caution if the ghosts of Northern Rock and its queues of anxious customers looms over their shoulders. Banish those ghosts and you take away some of the fear of the consequences of failing to run a responsible business.
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