At the heart of the financial industry are highly leveraged businesses. Their central activity is creating and trading assets of uncertain value, while their liabilities are, as we have been reminded, guaranteed by the state. This is a licence to gamble with taxpayers’ money. The mystery is that crises erupt so rarely.
The place to start is with the core of modern capitalism: the limited liability, joint-stock company. Big commercial banks were among the most important products of the limited liability revolution. But banks are special sorts of businesses: for them, debt is more than a means of doing business; it is their business. Thus, limited liability is likely to have an exceptionally big impact on their behaviour.
Regulatory reform cannot end with incentives. But it has to start from incentives. A business that is too big to fail cannot be run in the interests of shareholders, since it is no longer part of the market. Either it must be possible to close it down or it has to be run in a different way. It is as simple – and brutal – as that.