Now we're getting somewhere

The British government has abandoned proposals for non-voting preference shares and is moving towards full-scale nationalisation of the banking sector. According to the London Times(h/t Felix Salmon) the latest proposals would leave the government owning 70 per cent of Royal Bank of Scotland and 50 per cent of Halifax. The London stockmarket is likely to be closed, and it seems unlikely that many banks will remain private by the time it reopens. Presumably, with Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs in deep strife, the US can’t be far behind, though Paulson is still talking nonsense about non-voting shares. Still, it’s only three weeks ago that he was opposing any kind of public equity, and only six weeks ago that he was claiming that there were no real problems.

As the Times says, no-one knows how much toxic sludge will turn up when the government finally gets access to the books, but it seems unlikely that most governments will be overwhelmed in the way that Iceland has been. The capacity of developed-country governments to raise additional revenue is huge, easily enough to cover trillions in bad debt over a few years. So, once the sector is nationalised it should be possible to get lending flowing again. And, the prospects for an orderly shutdown of the massively overgrown markets for derivatives like credit default swaps suddenly seem a lot better.

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A bad move

The Rudd government has made its first big mistake in handling the financial crisis. The just-announced proposal to guarantee bank accounts up to $20 000 is worse than useless. Given that lots of people hold more than $20 000 in individual bank accounts, they have an obvious incentive to diversify, which means large scale withdrawals. The possibility of this turning into a run is far from remote. Turnbull’s suggestion of $100 000 is better, but the only serious option is an unlimited guarantee.

Update Some good news on this. Once we have a guarantee of $100K or more in place, the extra liability associated with an unlimited guarantee will be modest, while the gain in simplicity will be substantial, and the argument for exercising direct control over bank lending will be unanswerable. Of course, as a colleague pointed out in the course of email discussions on this point, the real problem is the banks’ reliance on overseas borrowing. I’ll be discussing some proposals on this before too long I hope.