Howard Davies: battling bank regulators in Basel

MT DIARY: Floating on the Rhine does little to cheer the RBS chairman's mood: 'the post-Brexit Swiss franc exchange rate is too horrific to quote.'

by Howard Davies
Last Updated: 29 Sep 2016

The dreaded Basel Committee on Banking Supervision, housed at the Bank for International Settlements (BIS), is cooking up some new and even tougher rules on bank capital, known in the trade as Basel 4, which could be very costly to meet. The regulators do not seem to understand just how hard it is to raise equity for a bank these days. So I thought a trip was in order.

It was a curious accident of history that put the world's banking supervisors in Basel. The BIS was set up to manage the investment of German reparations after the First World War. Basel was chosen as the location, in large part because it sits at the centre of the European rail network. In fact, quite soon after the Bank was set up, the Germans decided that paying reparations was not as good an idea as seeking world domination, but the BIS did not see that as a reason to wind up and gradually dreamt up new roles for itself, one of them being to play host to international regulatory committees.

I hobbed and nobbed and lobbied a bit, to little avail, then wandered round town on an unusually hot evening. It turns out that the top tip for what to do in Basel on a Friday night is to throw yourself in the Rhine with a Wickelfisch. Just in case there is a reader unfamiliar with the Wickelfisch, it is a brightly coloured waterproof sack in which you put your clothes while you float down the river. The Wickelfisch tags on behind and when you get out a couple of miles later you can go to dinner looking halfway respectable.

Lying back in the Rhine while the current carries you rapidly downstream, dreaming of Rhinemaidens and Risk-Weighted Asset ratios, equally sexy topics for a banker, is an agreeable way of spending the time. But when you climb out, eat a schnitzel and get the bill, you wish you had floated down to Rotterdam and across the North Sea before eating. The post-Brexit sterling Swiss franc exchange rate is too horrific to quote in a magazine your wife or servants might read. I hope our new prime minister was not put off her stride on her summer holiday.

Forecasting exchange rates is not a task for the faint-hearted, but there is a pretty broad consensus in the Markets that sterling is more likely to fall further than to stage a thrilling recovery. So this summer we continued our tour of EU countries we may not be able to afford to visit in future. Last year we went to the westernmost point of the EU, in the Azores. (Before some clever clogs writes to point out that, technically, St Pierre and Miquelon, islands off Newfoundland, are part of France, I should point out that we went there three years ago.) This year, we chose the eastern extremity.

Every schoolboy knows that is Sulina, a free port at the mouth of the Danube. What had slipped my mind is that the street plan of the town was laid out by a Royal Navy engineer after the Crimean War. The European Commission of the Danube was set up to find out why the entry to the Danube had become so difficult to navigate, which was putting a damper on trade.

Our representative was a junior naval officer called Sir John Stokes. With the help of a gunboat or two, he discovered that a major part of the problem was the river pilots. They were all Greek at the time, and had a habit of steering freighters onto the sandbar near Sulina, then calling on lighter men, also all Greek as it happens, who for an exorbitant price, split with the pilots, would take some cargo off the ship to allow it to float free.

The Commission might have simply booted out the Greeks and wound itself up and gone home. But like the BIS, it managed to find other things to occupy its time until 1938, when the Germans decide that the Danube was a German river, which did not need foreign interference.

Today the Danube Delta is a magical spot. Ceausescu tried to mess it up with some ill- conceived dredging schemes, and built himself an enormous and grotesque thatched cottage, which is now entirely deserted. But even he could not spoil the landscape, or distress the birds who congregate there in enormous numbers. We saw more pelicans than I believed existed, were buzzed by egrets and herons, and lunched on water chestnuts pulled out of a lake.

Of course, my first Johnsonian thought, when I saw a huge flat expanse of floating islands and waterways with almost no human population nearby was: what a perfect place for a huge new intercontinental airport. The unimaginative Romanians have other more bird-friendly plans, which just goes to show how much they still have to learn about life on the edges of the European Union.

They show a less sure touch in the centre of Bucharest, however, where the small part of the old town left untouched by Ceausescu's megalomaniac schemes has been repurposed as a location for Ryanair-facilitated British stag and hen parties, with cocktail lounges and knocking shops occupying 18th-century merchant houses. The strengthening leu may soon put a stop to that. Our stags and hens may soon find themselves in Grimsby and Lowestoft instead. The resident Ukippers may come to wonder whether the Poles and Romanians, who can generally hold their drink rather better, might not have been more congenial neighbours in the longer term.

Howard Davies is chairman of RBS. Follow him on Twitter: @howardjdavies

Image credit: Norbert Aepli/Wikipedia


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