Tough at the top, but change will come from listening to the masses
Whistleblowers must be brought into the debate
Published 19/11/2009 | 05:00
THE governor of the Central Bank could easily imagine himself a Master of the Universe, looking out from his seventh-floor, glass-walled office with its unequalled views of the Dublin cityscape. In the case of the new governor, Patrick Honohan, however, all the eyes are on him.
He takes over at a time of unparalleled crisis for the bank and its attendant financial regulatory system -- a bank which was previously noted for hardly being noticed at all.
The virtual collapse of the Irish banking system has changed all that. It is a bitter thing for Dame Street, which put bank stability at the top of every policy choice, to have presided over such a collapse. Someone, and something, different is required to restore public faith in the bank and, perhaps, its faith in itself.
Dr Honohan thinks one of the ways may be for him to get out of that penthouse office more. "I have made a point of visiting all the departments of the bank," he says, adding: "There were rather more of them than I expected.
"It is not just a question of finding out what they do. You meet people, and I have been very impressed by the number of smart, enthusiastic people I've found."
He intends to stray even further afield. "You can't find out what is going on sitting in Dame Street. The issue is market intelligence -- about bank customers, the bond markets, and so on."
What makes Dr Honohan different, for the Central Bank of Ireland, is that he is not a senior civil servant -- most commonly from the Department of Finance.
He is not a central banker either, but he has been around in his career as an economist and spells in the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.
This may explain another, more startling idea; that there is a place for dissidents, and even whistleblowers, in the devising of policy. Presumably there is some soul-searching over the fact that economists writing in newspapers seemed to call the looming banking crisis better than the authorities.
"There are always contrarians, and they are usually wrong -- but not always," Dr Honohan says with his trademark grin.
"They need to be brought into the debate and their views assessed. Likewise, there were whistleblowers on the Bernie Madoff affair, but they were not heeded. I'm trying to find ways of making use of such information."
Rules are no good unless they are both enforced, and seen to be enforced, he says.
"I wrote an article with (Nobel laureate economist) Joe Stiglitz 10 years ago, in which we said that even well-designed regulation may not always work in practice, and there should be certain simple rules that no-one can step over.
"I believe there is scope for better regulation, tougher penalties and taking offenders to court if needs be, if the administrative penalties are not deemed severe enough."
He rejects the argument that "principle-based" regulations have failed, saying the changes in banking itself would have made any specific set of rules irrelevant.
"We must enforce both the rules that are there, and the principles which have been laid down. I am prepared to take court action against an institution, especially if some past behaviours reappear. . . Even if we are not sure of winning, I would go for it to win at the court of public opinion.
"If the legislation is inadequate, then that is one way to get it improved."
The court of public opinion has also delivered a hostile verdict on top bankers' pay and bonuses but the AIB muddle shows this is not a simple matter.
The new governor is not convinced that straight caps on bankers' pay are the answer. "Internationally, people are becoming less keen on that idea. If you enforce that, you can lose the kind of people you really want.
"The focus should be on reducing short-term bonuses and aligning incentives for top executives with the general good. The minister has discretion on the pay ceiling and I don't think he will adopt a dog-in-the-manger attitude."
For now, his priority is resolving the banking crisis and restoring stability. Decisions on re-capitalisation and ownership will define the shape of the Irish banking sector for the next 20 years, he says.
"We are trying to do it in a way that has the lowest risk for the taxpayer. The bank has an important role in advising the Government, but also, as the financial regulator, determining the capital requirement of the banks."
He is wary of blanket figures, such as the banks requiring solid capital worth 8pc of their total assets. The figure will vary from bank to bank, he says, depending on its business and circumstances. But adequate capital is essential if banks are to fulfil their role of providing credit, especially to small business.
"It is no good having the costly Nama scheme and still have limping banks which are unable to stand on their own feet without the taxpayer. In the end, bank capital will have to be a good deal higher than it was, but the short-term challenge is regaining the confidence of the market."
He thinks people may have the wrong idea about the Irish banks requiring emergency support from the European Central Bank for the indefinite future.
"The Irish banks are not getting special treatment. They have lots of good collateral that they can use for normal loans from the ECB. I think the €54bn in Nama bonds will be of more use in the wider financial markets, because they are government guaranteed."
Bank recapitalisation, with as much as possible coming from investors rather than taxpayers, should also mean that the fears of a looming credit crunch will prove to have been exaggerated. But things could improve further if banks paid more attention to small business, he says.
"There are a lot of developments in other countries where they are seeing SME lending more as a source of profits, and investing in systems to expand it. Irish banks may need better information systems about SMEs, and perhaps they could do some of that collectively."
His other urgent task is the establishment of the new, enhanced regulatory system, following the appointment of former Bermuda regulator Matthew Elderfield, and helping it get off to a good start with the public.
"I want to make sure there are no 'unexploded bombs' lying around. I haven't found any yet, but I want to make sure."
If there are any, they are more likely to be found among the multifarious activities in the International Financial Services Centre (IFSC) than among chastened domestic Irish banks.
The failure of the German bank Depfa, which operated out of the IFSC, is a source of continuing friction with the German authorities.
Dr Honohan is adamant in his view that ultimate responsibility lies with the regulator of a bank's home country -- and its taxpayers.
"There are supposed to be clear rules, but there are issues around them," he concedes.
"However, it is clear to me that guarantees from the Irish taxpayer do not generally apply to customers of IFSC institutions. That has to be made more clear in future."
He is determined that Dublin will not be seen as a place for easier regulation, as has been claimed in the past.
"I am not in the business of looking into old files to see what went wrong, but I can say that, while there may be institutions thinking of moving in search of lighter regulation, there is no point in them moving to Dublin, because they won't find it here."