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Lehman Brothers collapse: Fear of repeat has made global banking too boring

Regulation has deprived emerging markets of desperately needed infrastructure finance

Lehman Brothers
Lehman Brothers (Photo: Reuters)

As bad as the 2008 crisis was, the cure could be worse. After Lehman Brothers fell and the U.S. government stepped in to rescue finance from its worst instincts, many demanded that banking become “boring” again. Stolid lending, it was argued, was what banking should be all about.

It’s time to recognize that this was a mistake. Finance is indeed more boring than it was earlier. But, that’s hurt the world over the long term much more than it’s helped.

Consider the Basel-III regulations which, following the crisis, have become the basis for much macro-prudential regulation of banks worldwide. Among the many negative if unintended consequences of new capital adequacy requirements is that they’ve made lending at the tenures associated with project finance prohibitively expensive. Banks’ participation in such financing, especially across national borders, has dried up.

Both the West and the developing world have suffered in consequence. Boring banking means that savers in the West are forced to endure much lower returns on their capital than otherwise.

Sophisticated private-equity and hedge-fund investors may be able to find their way around some regulations, and have access to the kinds of assets that appreciate comfortably; they’re seeing the benefits of global growth. The vast mass of savers aren’t. In effect, Western countries’ aging populations are being impoverished — punished for the failures of regulation and supervision that were hardly their fault. Is it any wonder that they’re turning to populists and anti-capitalists in droves?

Meanwhile, developing countries facing the demands of climate change and anxious young populations face great pressure to invest in new, green infrastructure. Since funds are no longer available, however, they’re forced to rely on their own resources or on dangerous new benefactors, such as the People’s Republic of China. If you want to know why the Belt and Road Initiative is upending geopolitics across the world, look no further than the botched response to the crisis of 2008.

Had it not been for the clampdown on risk-taking after the crisis, global finance would have gone out and done its real job — finding and financing remunerative projects in the developing world. Instead, it’s been dissuaded from breaking open the black box of risk, including in distant geographies, and turned into a zombie sector that depends only on central bank action or the occasional unicorn for its returns. Yes, 2008 was not good. But a world without competent finance, and thus growth, is worse.