For better or worse, banking is back in the headlines. From the desperate efforts of crisis-struck Eurozone governments to the Occupy Wall Street movement currently spreading across the globe, the future of banking is hotly debated. A new compilation of short essays by leading financial economists from the U.S. and Europe analyzes the short-term challenges in addressing the Euro-crisis as well as the medium- to long-term regulatory issues. The essays cover a wide variety of topics, ranging from Eurobonds to ring-fencing and taxation, but there are several themes that come through across the chapters. First, many reforms have been initiated or are under preparation, but they are often only the first step towards a safer financial system. Second, there is a need to change banks’ incentive structure in order to reduce aggressive risk-taking. Third, there is an urgent – also political – need to move away from privatizing gains and nationalizing losses, thus from bailing out to bailing in bank equity and junior debt holders.
I will not be able to touch on all the topics discussed in the book, so let me discuss some of the main messages in more detail. Ring fencing – the separation of banks’ commercial and trading activities, known as the Volcker Rule but also recommended by the Vickers Commission in the UK – continues to be heavily discussed among economists. While Arnoud Boot thinks that “heavy-handed intervention in the structure of the banking industry … is an inevitable part of the restructuring of the industry”, Viral Acharya insists that it is not a panacea as long as incentive problems are not addressed. Banks might still undertake risky activities within the ring or might even have incentives to take more aggressive risk. Capital regulations have to be an important part of the equation.