Sir Mervyn King rejects criticism for crisis

Media caption,
Sir Mervyn King says banks should "retain profits as a cushion against possible losses"

The governor of the Bank of England, Sir Mervyn King, has rejected blame for the financial crisis.

His comments came in an interview on BBC Radio 4 on Thursday, following his delivery of the annual Today Programme Lecture on Wednesday.

"My main point was not to try to blame anyone - this was a failure of the system," he told BBC Radio 4's Today Programme.

But there has been some criticism of Sir Mervyn's version of events.

In his speech, Sir Mervyn said: "With the benefit of hindsight, we should have shouted from the rooftops that a system had been built in which banks were too important to fail, that banks had grown too quickly and borrowed too much, and that so-called 'light-touch' regulation hadn't prevented any of this."

But David Blanchflower, a former member of the Bank of England's Monetary Policy Committee, accused Sir Mervyn of being "disingenuous".

"If Mervyn King had thought more regulation was important he could've done something about it. And because he didn't he must take responsibility for the fact the Bank of England missed the biggest financial crisis in a century," he told BBC Radio 5 live.

BBC business editor Robert Peston said that Sir Mervyn had blamed a range of other people.

"He blamed the recklessness of banks; he blamed a collective 'failure of imagination' to see that banks' huge increase in lending was the mother of all dangerous bubbles waiting to burst; he blamed the last Labour government for stripping the Bank of England in 1997 of its direct powers to regulate banks."


Sir Mervyn was keen to talk about the new institutions that have been put in place by the Bank of England since the crisis.

"Where the mistakes were was in not having enough policy instruments to deal with the imbalance," he said.

"What we have now is a new financial policy committee at the bank that will be able to add to the instruments, so that when we see one part of the economy going ahead too quickly the financial policy committee can target that."

He conceded that the Bank of England might have been slow to react, but excused himself on the grounds that UK interest rates had still been relatively high.

"We were certainly late to the game in understanding the scale of the fragilities in the banking system and the potential consequences when the risks materialised, but we were in good company. It was not the case that people were saying 'gosh, you really should raise interest rates to slow down what's happening in the banking sector'," he said.

Media caption,
Sir Mervyn King: Bank of England "late to the game"

Three Rs

Sir Mervyn said that three reforms topped his list: regulation, resolution and restructure.

"When, as it will, the economy returns to normal, our role will be to take away the punchbowl just as the next party is getting going," Sir Mervyn said.

The biggest risk to banks at present, he said, was from the troubles in the eurozone, which were "far from over".

"That's why we've been pushing for banks to pay out less to their shareholders and employees and instead retain profits as a cushion against possible losses.

"We need to ensure that more of banks' shareholders own money is on the line, and banks rely correspondingly less on debt. If banks and their shareholders have more to lose, they will be more careful in choosing to whom they lend."

He acknowledged that from time to time a bank would fail, so the Bank of England needed to ensure that one could do so safely.

A resolution mechanism is needed - a special legal framework that would allow a failing bank to continue to provide essential services while its finances are being sorted out.

"It's precisely what was lacking when Northern Rock failed in 2007, leaving nationalisation as the only alternative," he said.

Finally he re-iterated his support for the recommendations made by the Independent Commission on Banking, chaired by Sir John Vickers, on restructuring the banking system.

The main idea concerns ring-fencing High Street banking operations so that they have their own financial cushions in case something goes wrong with the rest of a bank's operations, such as at its investment bank business.

"It's vital that Parliament legislates to enact these proposals sooner rather than later," Sir Mervyn said.

Having been governor since 2003, Sir Mervyn will leave the Bank of England next year when his second five-year term comes to an end.

Paul Tucker, a deputy governor at the Bank of England, is tipped to replace him.

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