DAVOS, Switzerland — If there is one place bankers should be able to let down their guard a little, you would think it would be at the World Economic Forum in Davos, an exclusive gathering of 2,500 of the globe’s financial and corporate elite.
Yet even here top banking executives found themselves on the defensive. It’s a reflection of how big banks — blamed by some politicians and the public for the 2007 financial crisis and the resulting Great Recession — are still grappling with pressure from recent scandals and moves toward increasingly complex and tighter regulation.
During a panel discussion on global finance at the forum, JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon criticized the “huge misinformation” about the risks actually posed by banks.
“We’re trying to do too much too fast,” he said. “Everyone thinks it was one thing that sank the system.”
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He and other top bankers at the discussion, including UBS Chairman Axel Weber and former head of Germany’s central bank, found themselves stressing that banks play an essential role in making economies grow — by lending to businesses so they can invest and expand.
“Banks continue to lend and grow and expand, finance is a critical part of the how the economy is run,” he said at an all-star panel where he was challenged both by a top International Monetary Fund official and a hedge-fund manager, whose firm is a client of Dimon’s bank.
“Everyone I know is trying to do a very good job for their clients,” Dimon said.
There have been plenty of negative headlines and investigations over the last year that show banking in a far harsher light: Several top banks are under investigation for rigging key interest rates, HSBC has been fined for allowing money-laundering and Standard Chartered has been penalized for dealing with Iran. Even Dimon’s own bank has suffered an embarrassing $6 billion trading loss on complex derivatives.
All of which has only given ammunition to the critics who say banks are too loosely regulated, too unethical and still so large that their collapse would threaten the economy.
That sense of dissatisfaction about the state of banks and the attempts to regulate them burst through during the Davos global finance panel.
Min Zhu, the deputy managing director of the International Monetary Fund, said the banking industry was “still too big” compared with the size of the global economy. Min also warned that other financial organizations, such as hedge funds, are playing a too-large, too-little regulated role known as “shadow banking” where risky practices that could cause a crisis remain beyond a regulator’s reach.
“All the debate going on, and the financial sector has not changed very much. We’re not safer yet. Five years on, we are still debating whether we have too much or too little regulation,” he said.
“I would say the financial sector has a long way to go.”
Weber added that global regulators “have clearly made up their minds that banks are too big.”
One skeptic of capital requirements is Edward Kane, a professor of finance at Boston College. He thinks big banks would likely find a way to circumvent them, as they did before the crisis by moving risk to off-balance sheet entities, for example — and still had the power to shape regulation in their interests.
“We were told before the crisis that capital requirements on banks would be the medicine that would prevent us from having crises, but they failed,” he told The Associated Press.
A better way to discourage excessive risk-taking, Kane proposes, would be to charge banks a simple premium that reflects what the taxpayer would have to pay in case the bank needs to be bailed out.
“There will always be financial crises,” he said. “Regulators are always outgunned, out-coached and playing from behind. What we can try to do is control the incentives and make the crises less deep.”