Saudi banking may offer a blueprint for the future

02 March 2009
After halting the disintegration of the banking industry, Western governments are turning their attention to the future. Could Saudi Arabia's highly regulated banking sector offer a new model?

This month, the IMF publishes a report about how the international financial system should change. It is likely to recommend sweeping reforms.

The vindictive are already focusing on the management and regulatory failures that caused the crash. Some top bankers may find themselves in court and, possibly, behind bars.

The credit crunch has had a limited impact so far on Middle East banks. Some Gulf countries, nevertheless, have lost faith in international capital.

Sultan al-Suwaidi, governor of the Central Bank of the UAE, told a meeting in February that the federation should “take initiatives to become a more insulated country...”

But with no failed banks, there are no pressing reasons for radical change in the GCC. In Saudi Arabia, the appointment of Mohammad al-Jasser as governor of the Saudi Arabian Monetary Agency (Sama) suggests the GCC’s largest economy thinks it has got its finance industry strategy right.

But there are lessons for everyone in the banking industry’s setbacks. The core of the problem was the conflict between banks’ role as masters of the financial transaction process and their activities as financial advisers. Some manipulated their processes and overcharged clients in pursuit of profits.

Banks were incompetent and untrustworthy.

This is prompting calls in the US for a revival of the Glass-Steagall Act, a law passed in 1933 following the collapse of the US finance system. This prevented banks offering commercial banking and securities services. The law was finally repealed in 1999. Some say that’s when the current crisis started.

But the storm unleashed by the failure of Lehman Brothers in September last year had little to do with the blurring of the distinction between commercial and investment banking. It was mainly caused by a systematic underestimation of risk that eventually affected every asset class. Bankers convinced borrowers and themselves, that everything had become easier than it really was. Rotten advice appeared to be good.

You cannot prevent people getting it wrong. But the system should stop them subverting an entire industry for their selfish ends. Reformers are calling for better and closer regulation. It is unclear, however, how this can be done without reducing the contribution banking makes to economic growth. And history suggests that every regulatory system can eventually be circumvented.

A better idea is to separate financial process service providers from banking relationship managers. For most individuals and corporations, a bank is nothing more than a computer that records income, spending, saving and debt. Most movements of funds are automated.

Economies of scale in computing suggest that a single system servicing everyone’s financial information needs would be more cost-effective than the fragmented networks created by banks. So long as it was secure, an IT firm could be allowed to run it.

If banks have a future, it must surely lie in providing unbiased advice. Equipped with a clear idea of what their customers really need, they would bid for digitalised finance from the central network. Instead of making money out of money, banks should aim to create value by working with savers and investors for the greater good of all.

Parts of the GCC banking industry are already effectively operating in this way. In Saudi Arabia, a government-controlled, computerised financial information network supports a small number of closely-supervised deposit-taking institutions. Until 2008, this structure was seen as a serious disability. But it is the main reason why the kingdom is now the only major emerging economy without failing banks.

This virtue should now be formalised by institutionally separating the two elements of the finance industry and ending the remaining influence banks have over the financial information processing network. In doing so, the kingdom would provide a new blueprint for the global banking industry.

Saudi Arabia as a model for the future seems a fanciful notion. But in a world turned upside down, stranger things have happened.

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