DAVOS, Switzerland (Reuters) - Top bankers adopted a softer tone after high-level meetings at the World Economic Forum on Saturday, thanking governments for shoring up the financial system in the hope of avoiding tighter regulation.
But, in a reminder of the problems banks still face after absorbing billions of dollars of taxpayers’ money in bailouts, French Finance Minister Christine Lagarde said financiers needed to show real thanks by changing their behavior.
After kicking off the debate at the Forum’s annual meeting with an attack on regulation, bankers took a different tack on Saturday at a meeting with finance ministers, emphasizing their wish to help create jobs and boost growth.
“I think it was a very constructive meeting and a meeting where we recognized that a lot has changed,” Barclays’ Chief Executive Bob Diamond, who acted as the co-chair of the bankers this week, told a Davos panel discussion on Saturday.
“But an awful lot has changed in the last three years and we should say ‘thank you’ to the central banks, to the finance ministers, to the regulators because banks are operating in a safer and sounder financial system.”
Lagarde, who was on the same panel, was quick to respond.
“The best way for the banking sector to say ‘thank you’ would be to actually have good financing of the economy, sensible compensation systems in place and reinforcement of their capital,” she said to laughter and applause.
The mood in the chic Alpine village soured at the start of the forum, when Goldman Sach chief operating officer Gary Cohn accused rulemakers of pushing risk toward the unregulated financial sector by putting an excessive burden on banks.
Tension rose when JP Morgan’s boss Jamie Dimon, one of the few U.S. bank bosses to survive the crisis, publicly clashed with French President Nicolas Sarkozy for putting more regulation on the agenda of the G20, which Sarkozy now chairs.
Sarkozy lashed out, telling Dimon that banks had done things which “defied common sense” and were wrong to resist more regulation. “If people present me as obsessed with regulation, it’s because there is a need for regulation,” he said.
But bankers opted for a more conciliatory tone when they met finance ministers, central bankers including European Central Bank chief Jean-Claude Trichet and regulators at a close-door gathering on Saturday morning that formally concluded deliberations on financial regulation.
Deutsche Bank CEO Josef Ackermann said the mood at the meeting had been good and Prudential Chief Executive Tidjane Thiam, the other informal spokesman of the bankers’ group, called the session “a good meeting of minds.”
“I think it was more upbeat than I expected,” said Howard Davies, a former chairman of the UK Financial Services Authority who also attended the meeting.
“There was no kind of sense of ‘let’s have an argument about over-regulation, too much capital, banks are being beaten up or whatever’. It was more ‘how do we ensure coordination ?'”
Congressman Barney Frank, also present at the meeting, said that contrary to 2006, there was now a recognition among bankers that policymakers need to regulate the sector, and probably venture into the “shadow banking” system at some point.
Yet, although accepting that regulation is here to stay, bankers asked for a quick and consistent implementation of the many requirements that are being imposed on them, especially for banks that are operating across many countries.
“There is a need to rapidly end this phase of regulatory uncertainty and to know that ... there is a level playing field and that the rules are equally implemented,” said Federico Ghizzoni, chief executive of Italy’s biggest bank UniCredit.
Additional reporting by Paul Carrel and Michael Stott, editing by Michael Stott and Mark Heinrich