A few years ago, senior officials at the Bank for International Settlements started ringing alarm bells about the scale of leverage that was quietly building up in the financial system. Back then, though, it was fantastically hard to get American policymakers – let alone bankers – to listen.
In the go-go days of the credit bubble, Washington policymakers blithely assumed that the Western financial system had plenty of capital to cope with any potential risks. Consequently, as one former BIS official admits: “Worrying about leverage wasn’t fashionable at all – no one wanted to hear.”
Fast-forward a couple of years and, my, how those Western financiers are having to eat humble pie (even to the point of accepting a helping hand from the once-ailing Japanese). After all, the events of the past year have now made it patently – horrifically – obvious that the Western banking system has become dangerously undercapitalised in recent years, to the point where even the Federal Reserve is having to shore up its defences.
Moreover, it is now also clear that Western policymakers are belatedly trying to correct this state of affairs. The days when high leverage, mega bonuses and wacky instruments were equated with financial virility have gone; instead a more humble, back-to-basics and slim-line approach is what investors are demanding. Thus, deleveraging is now all the rage – in whatever form it might take.