Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Banks are funny businesses. They receive our deposits and then take a calculated risk by lending out some of this money to other people. By charging borrowers more interest than they pay lenders, they make a profit. Usually things work just fine, by that element of risk is always there. What if depositors all ask for their money back at once? Again, usually, things work out fine. If this happens, the bank has to borrow from other banks. So long as its assets (the loans it has made to borrowers) are sound, there should be no problem in doing this. Sometimes, though, confidence can be a fragile thing. This is just what has been demonstrated in recent days by the story of Northern Rock.

Northern Rock has sound assets - mortgages that can be expected to be repaid. Its recent history is, in this respect, a little puzzling. But it is indicative of an underlying lack of confidence that is giving the whole financial system the jitters at present. Lower interest rates would help steady nerves. But, under the present system, interest rates are not set with that in mind. Legislating for a minimum amount of banks' assets to be held in liquid form (as cash, for example) might also help, though this presumes that the authorities know better than the banks themselves what is good for the latters' business. Such required reserve ratios do, however, exist in several countries. Giving savers a guarantee that their savings are safe is another solution that can prevent a run on banks - but it would not encourage prudent behaviour by the banks.

There are no simple cures for the jitters, therefore. But there is some consolation in knowing that the reason for that is, in part at least, because there is no obvious cause either.

Monday, September 03, 2007

The Taxpayers' Alliance suggests that environmental taxes in the UK have gone too far. The group argues that the tax take is greater than the cost of the environmental damage caused by pollution. This misses the point.

The taxes are not there to raise money. They are there to raise the relative price, and so reduce the consumption, of things that lead to pollution. There may be legitimate concern that green taxes are being used as a type of stealth tax - a sneaky way to increase the overall tax burden. But that is not a problem that should necessarily be fixed by reducing environmental taxes - if, as seems to be the case, such taxes are effective in tackling pollution, a better solution would be to reduce the burden of conventional taxes, such as income tax of VAT.