This is Martin Wolf’s response* to Andrew G Haldane’s “Control rights (and wrongs)” Wincott Annual Memorial Lecture, on October 24, 2011

In this lecture, Andy Haldane, executive director for financial stability at the Bank of England, provides a compelling account of the development of western – above all British banking – over the past two centuries. He demonstrates the consequences of a progressive divorce between who controls the banks – shareholders and managers – and who bears most of the risks – society at large and, in particular, taxpayers.

Mr Haldane shows that each step along this road to ruin seemed reasonable, even inescapable. Yet the journey has ended up with over-leveraged behemoths that are too big to fail and, increasingly, too big to save.

Between one and a half and two centuries ago, it was common for equity to account for half of a bank’s funding and liquid securities to account for as much as 30 per cent of its assets. Financial sector assets accounted for less than 50 per cent of UK gross domestic product and the largest banks had assets of less than 5 per cent of GDP. Read more

According to a FT article last week, Lloyds’ bank has a target return on equity of 14.5 per cent. Banks like to argue that this is the level of return on equity they need to earn, in order to gain funding from the markets. Naturally, remuneration is linked to achieving such objectives. The question, however, is whether such objectives make any sense. The brief answer is: no.

Forget banks, for the moment. What would you say if someone offered you an investment with a promised real return of close to 15 per cent? You might say: “How much can I buy?” Alternatively, you might say: “What is the catch?” Sensible people must take the latter view. If you thought that you were being offered a reliable real return at such an exalted level, you would buy as much as you could. This must be particularly true now when real returns on the bonds of relatively safe governments are close to zero.

So what is the catch? The obvious answer has to be that the real return in question is extremely risky, because it is volatile and offers a significant chance of total wipe-out. Read more