Government hikes bank levy - as Turner calls for tougher sanctions

Have the banks paid sufficiently for their pre-crash sins? The Government - and Lord Turner - don't seem to think so.

by James Taylor
Last Updated: 19 Aug 2013
The Government said today that it's decided to increase the rate of its new bank levy, a move that could swell the Treasury's coffers by an extra £400m or so by the end of this Parliament. OK, so that's not a huge sum in the context of how much money the banks make - but the higher rate, along with an adjustment to make sure bigger banks pay more, suggests the Government feels that the sector hasn't yet paid a suitable price. And speaking of banker-bashing, FSA chairman Lord Turner has just suggested that senior execs who make bad business decisions should forfeit two years' pay (as per the US Dodd-Frank Act) and be banned from getting another job. Far be it from us to sympathise with the Sir Fred Goodwins of this world, but we can't help feeling that may be a step too far...

The Government's balance sheet tax was supposed to be levied at 0.04% next year, rising to 0.07% in 2012; now next year’s rate will be 0.05%, rising to 0.075% in 2012. So it's only going up slightly - but it could now bring in about £2.6bn a year, around £100m more than expected (though since the tax is levied on the banks' wholesale funding, the actual take will depend how much they borrow). Significantly, it's also changing the rules so banks aren't taxed on the first £20bn of funding - which means the burden will largely fall on the big banks. Since these are the ones that are effectively too big to be allowed to fail, and are thus effectively insured by the taxpayer, that doesn't seem unreasonable.

However, we're less convinced by Lord Turner's latest musings on the lessons learned from the crash. Turner has spoken out following a row over the FSA's decision not to publish the findings of its enquiry into the RBS debacle (it says it's prevented from doing so by legal confidentiality requirements, although some lawyers beg to differ).

His Lordship admits that what happened at RBS didn't actually break any rules - it was just a series of very risky decisions that turned out in hindsight to be very bad ones. But, he argues, banking is not like other sectors, since the consequences of bad decisions are much more serious and wide-ranging. So he believes there's a case for changing the rules to encourage execs to be more risk-averse - and that could mean employing more punitive sanctions for those who get it wrong.

Turner's contributions to this debate are always measured and thoughtful. But we're not sure we agree with him this time. He accepts himself that banking bosses made decisions that at the time were perfectly legal, plausibly valid (albeit risky) and even applauded by the market. In general terms, it seems unfair to retrospectively punish someone for a decision taken in good faith that turns out, in the light of later events, to have been the wrong one. Although maybe it's worth making an exception to this principle for bankers?

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