Move your money: We need new models of banking, not just new banks

Introducing "competition" to banking won't work if it's just Tesco Bank taking over

Another week, another banking scandal. More tokenistic contrition from bankers, feigned outrage from politicians and protestations of ignorance from regulators. Feel familiar anyone?

But this time its different. The revelation that Barclays, and pretty much every other global bank, has been systematically rigging interest rates to bolster their profits has changed British banking for good.

Most importantly, it has broken the widespread consumer apathy that characterised our retail banking market.

Since the financial crisis there has been a steady flow of consumers out of the big 5 and into mutuals such as building societies, the Cooperative and credit unions – 2.8 million all in all.

But in the wake of the Libor scandal this trend has increased exponentially with Nationwide reporting an 85 per cent week-on-week increase in new account enquiries, the Co-operative 25 per cent and some of the smaller ethical banks and credit unions an increase of over 200 per cent.

Significantly, the other big banks have not reported a similar surge in footfall. In fact, customers are starting to leave not just Barclays but all the big banks in favour of mutual and ethical providers.

A recent YouGov poll found that 83 per cent of respondents thought "the other banks are just as bad as Barclays". People realise the problems in our banking system are systemic and so they are moving to a meaningful alternative.

There are rumours that both RBS and Barclays have been called into the FSA to discuss the number of depositors moving. People are beginning to move their money in significant numbers. That hurts the big banks which are increasingly dependent on deposits for funding as the markets dry up in the shadow of the storm in Europe.

The Libor scandal has also changed the political landscape around banking reform. This banking scandal is swiftly becoming a political crisis as the Bank of England, senior regulators and politicians from both sides of the House become embroiled.

No one should be surprised that greed and self-interest in the City has had a corrosive effect in Westminster. The sheer concentration of wealth and power in such a small number of institutions means that the establishment must do whatever it takes to keep the gravy train going – irrespective of how destructive the banks' behaviour has become. And not least of all because we rely on the banks to keep our speculative housing market inflating and thus home-owning voters feeling wealthy, despite their stagnating real incomes.

The defence mechanism on both sides of the House has been mindless mud slinging and political point scoring. Last week both parties have tried to pull back from these playground spats as it becomes apparent that they are only further eroding any remaining trust the public have in politicians to fix this problem.

This is the background against which Miliband’s speech earlier this week must be judged. In his description of "stewardship banking", Miliband cited "a banking system where no one bank feels either too big to fail or too powerful to be challenged. But where all banks face real competition and customers have proper choices."

His solution? To force banks sell off branches to create more "challenger" banks. Miliband is right to argue that there must be more competition in our retail banking sector as more competition means more choice for consumers – but it must be meaningful choice. Banks continue to close branches in low-income areas because they’re costly to run, their main value being as a sales floor for more complicated and profitable products. The only "challengers" able to buy up branches will be the ilk to Tesco Bank, or more of the same.

The traditional banking model is not working for swathes of our society. Not only small businesses but also entire communities and geographical areas, which are becoming credit deserts.

These can be profitable markets to serve. It is this market opportunity which high cost and payday lenders, which are becoming all too ubiquitous on our high streets, are taking advantage of. But there is another way.

The UK has a thriving sector of local and mutual financial institutions, from the big building societies down to local community finance institutions and credit unions. These institutions have already proved that there is a different way of doing things, and don’t need public subsidies that run into hundreds of billions.

Reforms must be focused on supporting and growing the socially responsible financial institutions already out there and already working. It must also enable consumers to drive change by making it easier to switch and forcing the banks to be fully transparent in terms of both their lending and investments and the way they market their products.

Politicians, local authorities, business and the third sector can all play an active role in this. Leading by example and moving their own accounts in order to strengthen socially responsible financial institutions as well as build trust and confidence in them.

The public have woken up to what a better banking system looks like. It may not be radical but it could be revolutionary Now its time for our politicians to do the same.

Metro Bank, a new bank launched recently. But is it a true competitor? Photograph: Getty Images

Louis Brooke is a spokesperson for Move Your Money UK, a not for profit campaign group, promoting alternatives to the big banks. He is also communications manager for London Rebuilding Society, and co-founder and chairman of educational resource company now>press>play.

Getty
Show Hide image

Let's turn RBS into a bank for the public interest

A tarnished symbol of global finance could be remade as a network of local banks. 

The Royal Bank of Scotland has now been losing money for nine consecutive years. Today’s announcement of a further £7bn yearly loss at the publicly-owned bank is just the latest evidence that RBS is essentially unsellable. The difference this time is that the Government seems finally to have accepted that fact.

Up until now, the government had been reluctant to intervene in the running of the business, instead insisting that it will be sold back to the private sector when the time is right. But these losses come just a week after the government announced that it is abandoning plans to sell Williams & Glynn – an RBS subsidiary which has over 300 branches and £22bn of customer deposits.

After a series of expensive delays and a lack of buyer interest, the government now plans to retain Williams & Glynn within the RBS group and instead attempt to boost competition in the business lending market by granting smaller "challenger banks" access to RBS’s branch infrastructure. It also plans to provide funding to encourage small businesses to switch their accounts away from RBS.

As a major public asset, RBS should be used to help achieve wider objectives. Improving how the banking sector serves small businesses should be the top priority, and it is good to see the government start to move in this direction. But to make the most of RBS, they should be going much further.

The public stake in RBS gives us a unique opportunity to create new banking institutions that will genuinely put the interests of the UK’s small businesses first. The New Economics Foundation has proposed turning RBS into a network of local banks with a public interest mandate to serve their local area, lend to small businesses and provide universal access to banking services. If the government is serious about rebalancing the economy and meeting the needs of those who feel left behind, this is the path they should take with RBS.

Small and medium sized enterprises are the lifeblood of the UK economy, and they depend on banking services to fund investment and provide a safe place to store money. For centuries a healthy relationship between businesses and banks has been a cornerstone of UK prosperity.

However, in recent decades this relationship has broken down. Small businesses have repeatedly fallen victim to exploitative practice by the big banks, including the the mis-selling of loans and instances of deliberate asset stripping. Affected business owners have not only lost their livelihoods due to the stress of their treatment at the hands of these banks, but have also experienced family break-ups and deteriorating physical and mental health. Others have been made homeless or bankrupt.

Meanwhile, many businesses struggle to get access to the finance they need to grow and expand. Small firms have always had trouble accessing finance, but in recent decades this problem has intensified as the UK banking sector has come to be dominated by a handful of large, universal, shareholder-owned banks.

Without a focus on specific geographical areas or social objectives, these banks choose to lend to the most profitable activities, and lending to local businesses tends to be less profitable than other activities such as mortgage lending and lending to other financial institutions.

The result is that since the mid-1980s the share of lending going to non-financial businesses has been falling rapidly. Today, lending to small and medium sized businesses accounts for just 4 per cent of bank lending.

Of the relatively small amount of business lending that does occur in the UK, most is heavily concentrated in London and surrounding areas. The UK’s homogenous and highly concentrated banking sector is therefore hampering economic development, starving communities of investment and making regional imbalances worse.

The government’s plans to encourage business customers to switch away from RBS to another bank will not do much to solve this problem. With the market dominated by a small number of large shareholder-owned banks who all behave in similar ways (and who have been hit by repeated scandals), businesses do not have any real choice.

If the government were to go further and turn RBS into a network of local banks, it would be a vital first step in regenerating disenfranchised communities, rebalancing the UK’s economy and staving off any economic downturn that may be on the horizon. Evidence shows that geographically limited stakeholder banks direct a much greater proportion of their capital towards lending in the real economy. By only investing in their local area, these banks help create and retain wealth regionally rather than making existing geographic imbalances worce.

Big, deep challenges require big, deep solutions. It’s time for the government to make banking work for small businesses once again.

Laurie Macfarlane is an economist at the New Economics Foundation