Commentary: It's time for the banks to pay

Commentary Its time fo

The leaders of the world's economies gathered in Istanbul this week, and the main subject on their agenda was how to deal with the troubled global financial system, ground zero of the current crisis. Two main issues were discussed in Turkey, and before that in their meeting in the US. The first is the demand for the banks' shareholders to inject more capital into the banks. The second is even more interesting: For the first time, decision-makers are seriously considering creating a special "bank tax" that would fund, among other things, further bailout and support programs should banks face more difficulties in the future. So far, the shameful management skills of the banks' executives have cost US taxpayers more than $1 trillion in cash in the form of TARP bailout money and FDIC payments for failed banks, of which more than 120 have gone bankrupt since the beginning of the meltdown. This figure is even bigger if you consider guarantees extended by the government for institutions such as Fannie Mae and Freddy Mac, not to mention the massive capital injected directly to banks by the US Federal Reserve. The justification for this unprecedented transfer of wealth from common people to the bank owners and employees was that without it, we would have suffered an even bigger disaster and this was the only way to revive the entire global economy that was on a brink of complete destruction. In short, all of us were taken hostage by a few financial criminals. If Winston Churchill were still alive, he would probably change his immortal words about the RAF pilots and say, "Never was so much owed by so few to so many." It is about time that the banks, especially the American and European ones, understood this debt has a price, and that they had better start becoming part of the solution and not only the problem. The first step should be more transparency in the world's financial system. Right now, banks' financial reports are one big black hole. No one knows what the real exposure of the banks to risky investment is. Not even banks' own management seem to understand that, as we can learn from the recent confession of John Thain, the CEO of Merrill Lynch. The holes in the banks' balance sheets are probably much bigger than most of the estimates made by official institutions. This is why the belief that the massive capital injections to US banks would be translated to more credit for the real market turned out to be false. The banks needed all this money just to fill up the holes in their balances, and nobody can really tell if this was enough. After the first step of obtaining full information about the real situation of the system, the idea of a special tax seems very right. There is no reason ordinary people should bear the burden of rescuing the fat cats once again. This tax, combined with a strict demand for more capital injection by the shareholders, should be a satisfying guarantee against future failures. The main problem is how to stop bankers from passing the tax's cost over to the public, and by that hamper the recovery of the real economy. The answer should be a close and strict supervision by regulators and special legislation that will prohibit banks raising their fees and their interest rate spread for a period of three years. World leaders can't really put their economies back on a safe track before fixing the financial problem that started this whole mess in the first place. Only after an overhaul of the financial system can we start the long path to recovery. It is going to be a long, painful path. Despite optimistic declarations from all over, the US economy is still deteriorating at a frightening pace. September's unemployment report, with a loss of 250,000 jobs in a month, is a painful reminder of a continuing disaster in the most important segment of the economy. More than 1 million Americans have gone bankrupt since the beginning of 2009, and by the end of the year almost 400,000 others are expected to join them. The real cost of the gigantic public bailout programs is only starting to reveal itself. The main problem is inflation. It had been said that the fact that the consumer price index had remained fairly low was proof that the inflation demon wasn't so frightening, and that the US had avoided the consequences of its own crazy money printing. This was complete false. It is true that prices had recorded only a slight rise. But this minor increase itself is proof that inflation is alive and kicking - otherwise we should have seen a sharp fall in prices, a direct result of businesses all over the world slashing prices and liquidating stocks. Inflation is always a tool that provides governments a way to rob their own citizens without them noticing it in time. In the US case, it gives the administration a way to rob other countries as well, by eroding the value of the American government's debt to foreign creditors. This is why the voices from outside the US for establishing a new global currency sound more serious than ever. Right now the test case is the new idea to abandon the US dollar as the sole currency of oil trade. The White House must take these threats seriously, and start easing things a little by showing it is willing to restrain its huge deficit. Of course, the odds are it won't. The ambitious and expensive health care plan, combined with the various public bailout programs, will probably lead to a bigger deficit. So, even if right now the calls for establishing a new global currency don't seem serious, they might become real sooner than anyone is willing to believe.