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Five Years of Financial Non-Reform

STANFORD – Five years after the collapse of Lehman Brothers triggered the largest global financial crisis since the Great Depression, outsize banking sectors have left economies shattered in Ireland, Iceland, and Cyprus. Banks in Italy, Spain, and elsewhere are not lending enough. China’s credit binge is turning into a bust. In short, the world’s financial system remains dangerous and dysfunctional.

Worse, despite years of debate, no consensus about the nature of the financial system’s problems – much less how to fix them – has emerged. And that appears to reflect the banks’ political power.

For example, Vince Cable, the United Kingdom’s business secretary, recently accused Bank of England regulators – whom he called “capital Taliban” – of holding back the country’s economic recovery by imposing excessive burdens on banks. Cable appears to believe the banks’ lobbyists when they claim that lending and growth would suffer if banks were forced to “hold more capital.”

Such claims by senior policymakers are hardly unique to the UK; but they are false and misleading. Bank capital is not cash reserves that must be “set aside”; it is unborrowed money that can be used to make loans.