Bull by the Horns

I am amazed that Sheila Bair’s book, Bull by the Horns, telling the story of her part in the global financial crisis of 2007-11 has not become a best-selling sensation. It is more a thriller than a financial tome although for the financially literate amongst us the fine detail is all there. While no doubt just her side of the story it does lay bare the double dealing, chicanerie and downright dishonesty of so many of the major players. It does reveal that in the main the crisis was handled in such a way as to preserve the personal fortunes of the mega-rich and that all the talk of global melt-down actually equated to the bankruptcy of many of them rather than the collapse of society as a whole. The notion that some banks were too big to fail was nothing more than pernicious propaganda. Almost as a footnote she highlights the fact that the European banking system is so weak that even today there is billions of dollars of toxic sovereign debt still to be dealt with. Recently RBS has admitted its own share of that debt. Current talk of recovery is masking the fragility of the Eurozone and the UK economy. It is noteworthy that in the land of free enterprise, the USA, regulation of the financial sector was more rigorous than in Europe and is even more so post the recession. Bailouts of insolvent banks is now forbidden along with a system for disposing of bankrupt banks, sacking their managements and depriving them of the prior two years’ compensation. The shareholders and investors take the losses and not the taxpayer. Insured depositors are safeguarded. According to Bair it was the Germans and French who opposed higher capital requirements for international banks under the Basel III agreement in spite of the huge problems of the Eurozone. She makes clear that the people with the “Get out of Jail Free” card were those in the financial sector who caused the problems in the first place. Huge pay packets and astronomic bonuses were largely protected by the various US agencies while thousands lost their homes and jobs. She believes that instead of bailouts the failing financial institutions should have been allowed to go under and that if that had been the case the world economy would now be in much better shape. If the banks that funded Southern Europe’s extravagances had sunk under the weight of debt Greece, Spain and Portugal would be no worse off today and the mess could have been quickly cleared up. As it is the mess is still there and probably getting worse. Greece gets European taxpayer money by way of a bailout which goes to service the debt in one European bank or another but also pays that bank’s dividends and bonuses whereas it should be the bank owners that take the haircut.

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