If there is one thing Australian governments have been good at over the past three decades, it is periodically reviewing the banking system and its regulation. Starting with Campbell in 1981 and then Wallis in 1996, governments have found that the best way to consider banking policy is to move it above the political fray, take its time, look at all parts and independently charge a panel with reviewing the state of affairs and providing clear and evidence-based recommendations.

In an open letter today, six economists (including myself) making the case for another similar inquiry to take place over the next year or so. In the letter we note that the Australian financial system has weathered the global storm relatively well, but at the same time a significant and often radical set of policies have been put in place.

ACTU president, Sharon Burrow, called many of these policies necessary “band aids.” At the same time, however, it is believed that those policies while shoring up our major banks have disrupted the smooth workings of the financial system. Right now, that isn’t a problem but into the future as we come out of this crisis the costs of those might be felt.

This is not simply a timely review but a necessary one. Economists have come to realise the gaps in their knowledge of how regulation performs and what the best institutions are for on-going government intervention in the financial sector. The Prime Minister is well aware of these as he articulated in his much talked about essay for The Monthly.

For these reasons, it is important to step-back and assess the new knowledge gained here and around the world and consider a greenfields approach to our set of financial regulations.

It is interesting that the proposal, floated although not necessarily endorsed in the letter, that a government-owned institution might have a competitive and stabilising role was picked up so strongly in the media. That policy likely has costs and benefits and only further investigation will determine its appropriateness.

The media attention surrounding it only adds grist to the mill that considered policy evaluation is necessary in this sector. Indeed, it is in the major banks’ interest to get behind a new independent inquiry lest policies directed towards them continue to be enacted on the fly or in the midst of some new political storm in relation to bank profits.

Our goal here is to decouple of review cycle from the electoral cycle for banking. That is surely something many interested groups can support:

Australia Needs a Comprehensive Financial System Inquiry

Joshua Gans, Nicholas Gruen, Christopher Joye, Stephen King, John Quiggin and Sam Wylie

Ever since the severe market failures in Australia’s securitisation industry were identified in 2008, we have been concerned that these problems were partly attributable to more fundamental flaws in Australia’s ageing regulatory architecture and the inadequately defined role of government in dealing with such crises.

The shortcomings within our governance system have been exacerbated by the relentless changes that have occurred in financial markets since the essential elements of our regulatory infrastructure were put in place decades ago. One example of this is the 1996 Wallis Inquiry’s rejection of the use of deposit guarantees, which have been critical tools for maintaining stability during the current crisis. Following the lessons that have been learned during the global financial crisis, and the 12 years that have elapsed since the last such exercise, we believe that a broad-based inquiry into the integrity of Australia’s financial system is now warranted.

While the $40-50 billion per annum residential mortgage-backed securities (RMBS) market supplied the funding for up to a quarter of all Australian home loans it did so with little-to-no government oversight or support. The growing depth and liquidity of this market enabled the emergence of significant alternatives to the major banks in the form of empowered regional banks and building societies, and smaller non-bank lenders. When this market disappeared due to an entirely external shock — the US sub-prime crisis — many of these institutions were brought to the brink of collapse and forced to withdraw from lending altogether or merge with competitors. At least one smaller Australian bank would likely have failed had it not done so.

The biggest beneficiaries of this chaos have been the four major banks that receive the most favourable regulatory treatment under the existing system, which was not conceived with many of their smaller rivals, and the new markets that they rely on, in mind. Yet the forced “reintermediation” of the major banks into the residential lending arena has had other unintended effects, with the pressure placed on their balance-sheets in turn compelling them to ration credit to the higher risk small business, corporate, and commercial property sectors.

Read the rest of the letter here.