By Rana Foroohar
May 6, 2015

It’s not often that you get a chance to hear Federal Reserve chair Janet Yellen and IMF head Christine Lagarde interview each other. But I did Tuesday at the “Finance and Society” conference held at the International Monetary Fund in Washington, D.C. The event was unique in many ways; not only did it feature only women speakers, a rarity at financial events (I was a moderator), but it also went head on at one of the most contentious and important topics in economics right now: Why doesn’t the financial system do more to serve the real economy and society at large?

The event was the brainchild of Anat Admati, a Stanford professor and TIME 100 honoree whose book The Banker’s New Clothes is one of the sharpest takes on what’s still wrong with our banking system six years after the financial crisis. About a year ago, Admati told me that she wanted to get a bunch of smart women together to discuss why the global economy and financial system were still so screwed up, not so much because they were women, but because they happened to be the individuals who were actually questioning the conventional wisdom that finance was now in much better shape than before 2008, that the “too big to fail” problem had been solved, and that everyone could just go home and relax (see “The Myth of Financial Reform”). Women have frequently been whistle-blowers in finance; only now are they also among the most powerful people in the industry (aside from Yellen and Lagarde, the conference included many other top policymakers and thinkers), so it was a good idea to get everyone together to discuss the topic.

What the discussion made quite clear is that there’s a lot more that needs to be done to make the system safe. While Yellen said that banks have increased capital and decreased leverage, she also made it clear that “too big to fail” hasn’t been solved and that the Fed is worried about the risks that have been built up into the system because of the “unthinkable” period of low interest rates over the past six plus years, which was itself a response to the 2008 crisis. While she said the Fed believes low rates are still necessary right now to maintain employment and price stability, she also noted that Fed leaders were monitoring the deterioration in lending standards in various areas, like the market for leverage loans, and high-yield debt. As she put it, “equity market valuations are quite high,” and the divergence in monetary policy around the world (the Fed is pulling back from easy money while others, like the European Central Bank, are pouring more into markets) could lead to unexpected distortions and corrections. Yellen called out the “taper tantrum” of 2013 in particular, and noted that not just banks, but also insurance and pension funds might be caught out when rates eventually do rise (her opening speech can be read here).

For her part, Lagarde noted that there are still plenty of risks in the system — they have just migrated to different areas. Nonbanking entities that do finance (known as shadow banks) now hold more risks than major banks, which makes it harder for regulators to see where problems are. Liquidity is a bigger problem than bank solvency, and emerging markets are more likely to blow up than developed ones. Changing financial culture will be just as important to solving these problems as regulation, according to Lagarde, who advocates putting more women in positions of power within the industry, since they tend to be less oriented toward risk taking than men. Lagarde made a point she’s made before, which is that perhaps the financial crisis wouldn’t have happened if “Lehman Brothers had been Lehman Sisters.”

I don’t know about that, but I do think that Lagarde was spot on to disagree with the notion that “banking should be boring.” This CW is often thrown around to indicate the idea that banks should do “plain vanilla” lending rather than complex deals with sliced and diced securities. Fair enough. But as the IMF chief pointed out, “Why should lending to the real economy be boring?” The shifts that need to happen to bring finance back in service to the real economy are myriad and complex. They include changing tax policy that rewards short-term gains over longer-term ones, reforming corporate governance, increasing personal liability, changing the structure of banks themselves and making our system of shareholder capitalism more inclusive. But the original mission of banking — finding new innovations and funding them to create growth in society at large — is anything but boring. The regulatory and cultural journey back to that, which will no doubt take several more years, should be interesting too.


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