At Davos, Era of Contrition for Bankers May Be Ending

After being on the defensive for the last two years, there were signs that bankers attending the World Economic Forum here were pushing back more assertively against attempts by regulators to cramp their style.

World Economic Forum
Source: World Economic Forum
World Economic Forum

At one of the opening panels on Wednesday, top executives from Goldman Sachs and Standard Chartered warned that new restrictions on their businesses are either irrelevant or threaten to hurt economic growth.

That is an argument bankers have been making for a long time, but the tone of the off-the-record session seemed more confident and less contrite than in recent years.

The bankers, who asked not to be quoted by name, agreed that the financial system was now more stable — one reason they may have become more outspoken. New regulations threaten to overwhelm institutions with red tape, raising the cost of banking services and often targeting the wrong kinds of risk, they said.

Davos 2011 - See Complete Coverage
Davos 2011 - See Complete Coverage

For example, the bankers argued that the so-called Basel III rules might encourage banks to load up on sovereign bonds, even though recent experience has shown that government debt is more risky than it used to be. Ultimately the overall economy will suffer, they said.

For at least one member of the audience, the bankers were a little bit too cocky. Phillip Thorpe, chairman of the Qatar Financial Center Regulatory Authority, said the banks were setting the stage for the next crisis.

“With no change, we can expect there will be another one,” Mr. Thorpe said afterward. Banks simply have to get used to taking less risk and earning lower returns, he said.

Those sentiments met with disdain from several of the bankers. Taking on risk, they said, is what banks do.