From Washington, the G-7 financial-ministerial meeting in the Arctic Circle actually looked inviting. At least up there, someone shoveled. This permitted the Pooh-Bahs to ponder and make some progress on global reform initiatives. It isn’t, though, progress the industry will care for – momentum is growing for some form of big-bank punitive fee.
Secretary Geithner did his darndest to push the Administration’s new “financial crisis responsibility fee” as a global revenge so that U.S. banks aren’t the only ones forced to cough up. We understand, though, that he didn’t get a lot of traction, with other finance ministers clinging to the ideas they pushed before the G-20 summit in September. More than a few of Mr. Geithner’s colleagues are privately peeved that the U.S. dissed their ideas then only to turn up a few months later with a tax all its own. Petty it is, but politics dictates push-back on the U.S. idea if only because of the tough spot in which initial U.S. opposition put other leaders when they went home from the Pittsburgh summit.
The Artic assessment of ways to whack banks thus considered several options. There was, to be sure, the U.S. crisis fee. But, other ideas on the table are the Tobin transaction tax (a seemingly small charge on wholesale-market transactions), a super- bonus tax, and/or an assessment on systemic-risk institutions (whomsoever they may be) to fund a new, global safety net. The IMF will have to sort all this out and recommend a final proposal in April, with its stand on each of these ideas—and some others in its hopper – as yet unclear.
But, what is clear is that liking bankers – never good politics – has become at least as toxic as the assets still on many big-bank books. President Obama has, of course, turned to confront the industry, with the nation’s bad mood about banks evident from the fact that – despite tough remarks of late about “fat cats” – Mr. Obama got a lot of grief this week when he failed to castigate a few CEOs by name. The UK’s Prime Minister is facing a tough re-election, with Tories – usually the bankers’ best friend – raking him over the coals for being over-cozy with the City. France and Germany were never much for big banks – remember the transaction tax was initially theirs. Now, these nations’ leaders will need to be still more leery of big banks because of the prospect that they will have to bail them out all over again if Greece goes sour.
In the midst of all of this, what’s a banker to do? So far, many are counting on the cynicism that pervades in each capital. While public mood dictates punishing politics, private need continues to force politicians into the boardroom. This at least gives the industry a fighting chance to forestall these costly proposals. Even as they do so, though, policy-makers will continue to push on less political ideas – tough new capital standards, for starters. These ideas don’t make headlines, but they’ll actually redefine the industry far more profoundly than any of the proposed pokes at compensation and taxation.