Protect the Bondholders?

The latest twists and turns in the Greek bailout fiasco have combined with a disturbing insight into FSA attitudes here in the UK to make me concerned that the system may now be distorted beyond peaceful reform. In fact, the danger of harmful destabilisation may be much worse because supervisor actions reinforce poor outcomes.

I am told that the primary objective of the ECB in Greece and the FSA in the UK is the same: Protect the bondholders.

Perhaps I am naive, but I did not realise that the FSA saw this as its primary mission until someone at the FSA bluntly told me so and someone in the markets confirmed it independently as only just and proper that this should be so.

If protecting bondholders from bad debt really is the primary objective of the supervisors, then the supervisors have become the problem. Capitalism does not work when capitalists are shielded from the economic risks that they freely undertake for profit when they enter into private contracts for debt finance. If bondholders know that they can get the ECB and the FSA to tilt the field in their direction, they have no incentive to balance yield against risk. They should just go for yield wherever they find it, and trust the ECB and FSA to ensure that they get their money whatever happens to the company, the depositor, the employee or the taxpayer who foots the ultimate bill for their yield.

If the objective of current official interaction with the markets is to prevent market determined outcomes, then we are in for a very ugly period of instability. The market is going to force a market outcome. The officials standing in the way can influence who profits from the market clearing, but the market is going to clear. If the officials have decided that the bondholders always win, then the rest of us will always lose. And once the rest of us – the companies, depositors, employees and taxpayers – remember that we have political power, then we will change the system.

This is what we are seeing in Greece on the streets. The Greek people have realised that the government works for the bondholders; the ECB works for the bondholders; the IMF works for the bondholders. They now understand what was not clear before: No one works for the people.

Strangely, this is also the realisation taking hold in Germany too. People are waking up to the fact that their national economic self-interest is subordinate to the claims of the bondholders. The German government’s priority is to protect the bondholders. Germans should know better than most that stuffing the bondholders is sometimes the best policy – having defaulted three times in the last century to lay the ground in each case for economic resurgence.

What scares me is that I naively believed the UK was different. I believed that the FSA was a market regulator that understood market operations. I am now under no such illusion. They have told me their job is to protect the bondholders. If that is true, then the UK is no different than Greece, just slightly behind Greece on the arc of history.

It used to be that the role of the state in financial market regulation was to ensure efficient market operations, promote transparency of prices and liquidity, protect consumers from abusive practices, and to resolve failed companies according to principles of equitable distribution of assets among like classes of creditors. If the role of the state now is to shield HFT, dark pool and OTC markets from transparency, provide liquidity where the market fails, oversee the orderly fleecing of consumers, and to ensure that some creditors of failing firms always win while others always lose, then we no longer have a market economy. And as virtually all these regulatory policies have evolved in the absence of public debate and legislative scrutiny, we also no longer have democratic governance of markets.

Perhaps this is what tiny Iceland realised when it determined that it would default rather than protect the bondholders. Perhaps in a small country in a big ocean it is easier to perceive a common interest in economic and political adaptation to protect the future of your children and your neighbours, rejecting the claims of the faceless, pitiless and stateless bondholders.

I suddenly have a lot more sympathy for the Greek people than I did a fortnight ago. Come the revolution here, I may be in the streets too.

Some will say that the Greeks are hard line communists pining for generous state benefits and pensions they haven’t earned. Maybe so. But there is more economic justice in such a system with such objectives determined in a democratic process than in any system with a secret primary imperative to Protect the Bondholders.

The FSA is being broken up as institutional punishment for its many failings in the run up to the financial crisis. I was skeptical of breaking the FSA along prudential supervision and consumer protection lines, but now think that may be a good thing. It may draw a sharp distinction between maintaining resilient banks and tilting the playing field toward institutional players like bondholders. A consumer protection authority will have a more direct interest in countering the Protect the Bondholders mindset where it robs the consumers or risks the taxpayers to achieve its ends.

As many long time readers know, I try to remain optimistic. There is hard work to be done, but the ground is fertile for those who will make the effort to seed and nurture the reforms required. The Vickers/Indepdendent Commission on Banking review and various efforts by HM Treasury and the Bank of England are all moving in the right direction: toward getting the state out of private financial transactions except as regards the setting and enforcing of reasonable rules. Hopefully they will succeed and the bondholder bias will be curbed with the break up of the FSA and long before we Britons hit the streets under the weight of an unsustainable debt.

This post originally appeared on June 22 at London Banker and is reproduced with permission.