Maeve Dineen: Back to where we started in 2007 but we can't let banks blackmail us again
CONCERN over events in the eurozone, the wider global economy and financial markets dominated the annual gathering of policymakers and financiers in Washington at the weekend -- but yet again a credible plan to end the crisis has failed to emerge.
In reality, we are back to where it all began, a debt crisis caused by the banks. In 2007, when the credit crisis began, the problem was that nobody knew who owed what to whom. Four long and wearying years later, we are in much the same position and the consequences may well be even worse this time round.
In the UK, vested interests have been tackled head-on, real efforts are being made to disentangle the casino elements of the banking system from the high street banks, and there seems to be a general acknowledgement that the financial services sector is too large. If, and this is still a big if, Prime Minister David Cameron manages to push through the reforms laid out in the UK's Independent Commission on Banking, Britain will have gone a fair way to ensuring that the 2008 disaster cannot be repeated while also establishing once again that moral hazard exists in the banking sector just as it should exist in all other parts of the capitalist system.
This is not to say that we will ever be able to eliminate the risk of a banking crisis -- history is littered with them over the centuries -- but we should be able to ensure that the right people go bust, lose their jobs and go to jail rather than ordinary business people and homeowners.
It is here that European governments have been unforgivably slow. Many of the French and German banks, which are now suffering downgrades, have been happily paying out dividends to shareholders in the past two years instead of shoring up their reserves. The same banks have also been allowed to keep secret most of the details of their bond holdings so that investors must speculate about their exposure to the sovereign debt crisis.
None of this should have been allowed to happen. One of the basic lessons of this crisis is that investors have not been given enough information to judge their investments properly. This secrecy was once acceptable but it now threatens to bring down the entire system.
The same secrecy is doubly sinister because it also allows the banks to blackmail governments. We are told time and time again that the almost certain Greek default will destroy many continental banks but how do we know this for sure? No country has suffered more than Ireland from blackmail by bankers, who offered the last government the apparent "choice" of a comprehensive guarantee and utter chaos.
Three years on, we still don't know the full story of that decision but we do know that the public have never been given a comprehensive explanation of how the collapse of Irish Nationwide or Anglo Irish would have affected the rest of the system. We only have the self-interested word of bankers who had their jobs, bonuses, pensions and prestige to consider rather than the national interest.
The importance of a deep, three-dimensional understanding, of a bank's books is perhaps the one lesson we can teach Europe. Without up-to-date and independently verified information, politicians will struggle to make the right decisions and risk enslaving their electorates for a generation.