The credit crunch continues

We are still experiencing a crunch in credit - when will it end?

The financial crisis, which began in 2007, is often described as the "credit crunch". The evidence, however, is that the crunch in credit only really began in 2009 and shows no sign of abating.

For many the financial crisis became real when queues of depositors were filmed outside Northern Rock on 14th September 2007. However, Bank of England credit data reveals that the credit crunch really began in the middle of 2009 and in a very dramatic fashion. It was then that many sectors of the British economy witnessed such a dramatic fall in credit that nearly three years on credit levels remain significantly below their peak.

Credit in many sectors fell off a cliff edge in the second quarter of 2009 after years of continual growth. The sectors in the table above all witnessed dramatic falls in credit in the middle of 2009, although real estate saw a more pronounced fall about a year later.

What is even more worrying is the fact that, in many sectors, credit levels have continued to fall.

The data in table 2 begins where that of table 1 finished and gives bimonthly credit figures from March 2011 to March 2012. Credit in these four key sectors has continued to fall. Of most concern are the falls in credit to manufacturing and financial intermediation firms. The manufacturing sector produces the majority of Britain’s goods exports and firms in this sector rely on credit to invest in capital. Furthermore, trade credit helps firms reach foreign markets. The fall in credit to firms involved in financial intermediation is both a symptom and a cause of the problem and is evidence of the weaknesses that continue to plague the British banking system.

The final table indicates the severity of the credit crunch. Interestingly the crunch that began in the middle of 2009 was of a similar magnitude to the contraction in credit since the end of 2010. The data suggests that, far from the crunch relaxing, it continues and with previous falls the problem is compounded.

The picture is not the same for all sectors; lending to individuals secured on the value of property or similar asset has returned to, and in fact risen beyond, pre-crisis levels. The hotels and restaurants sector did not witness a significant fall in credit during the crisis. Nevertheless credit constraints continue to affect many important sectors of the British economy and there is little indication that this situation will change any time soon. Given this, it is hard to argue that the worst is behind us.

What time is it? Time to make it easier to get credit. Photograph: Getty Images

Selling Circuits Short: Improving the prospects of the British electronics industry by Stephen L. Clarke and Georgia Plank was released yesterday by Civitas. It is available on PDF and Amazon Kindle

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BHS is Theresa May’s big chance to reform capitalism – she’d better take it

Almost everyone is disgusted by the tale of BHS. 

Back in 2013, Theresa May gave a speech that might yet prove significant. In it, she declared: “Believing in free markets doesn’t mean we believe that anything goes.”

Capitalism wasn’t perfect, she continued: 

“Where it’s manifestly failing, where it’s losing public support, where it’s not helping to provide opportunity for all, we have to reform it.”

Three years on and just days into her premiership, May has the chance to be a reformist, thanks to one hell of an example of failing capitalism – BHS. 

The report from the Work and Pensions select committee was damning. Philip Green, the business tycoon, bought BHS and took more out than he put in. In a difficult environment, and without new investment, it began to bleed money. Green’s prize became a liability, and by 2014 he was desperate to get rid of it. He found a willing buyer, Paul Sutton, but the buyer had previously been convicted of fraud. So he sold it to Sutton’s former driver instead, for a quid. Yes, you read that right. He sold it to a crook’s driver for a quid.

This might all sound like a ludicrous but entertaining deal, if it wasn’t for the thousands of hapless BHS workers involved. One year later, the business collapsed, along with their job prospects. Not only that, but Green’s lack of attention to the pension fund meant their dreams of a comfortable retirement were now in jeopardy. 

The report called BHS “the unacceptable face of capitalism”. It concluded: 

"The truth is that a large proportion of those who have got rich or richer off the back of BHS are to blame. Sir Philip Green, Dominic Chappell and their respective directors, advisers and hangers-on are all culpable. 

“The tragedy is that those who have lost out are the ordinary employees and pensioners.”

May appears to agree. Her spokeswoman told journalists the PM would “look carefully” at policies to tackle “corporate irresponsibility”. 

She should take the opportunity.

Attempts to reshape capitalism are almost always blunted in practice. Corporations can make threats of their own. Think of Google’s sweetheart tax deals, banks’ excessive pay. Each time politicians tried to clamp down, there were threats of moving overseas. If the economy weakens in response to Brexit, the power to call the shots should tip more towards these companies. 

But this time, there will be few defenders of the BHS approach.

Firstly, the report's revelations about corporate governance damage many well-known brands, which are tarnished by association. Financial services firms will be just as keen as the public to avoid another BHS. Simon Walker, director general of the Institute of Directors, said that the circumstances of the collapse of BHS were “a blight on the reputation of British business”.

Secondly, the pensions issue will not go away. Neglected by Green until it was too late, the £571m hole in the BHS pension finances is extreme. But Tom McPhail from pensions firm Hargreaves Lansdown has warned there are thousands of other defined benefit schemes struggling with deficits. In the light of BHS, May has an opportunity to take an otherwise dusty issue – protections for workplace pensions - and place it top of the agenda. 

Thirdly, the BHS scandal is wreathed in the kind of opaque company structures loathed by voters on the left and right alike. The report found the Green family used private, offshore companies to direct the flow of money away from BHS, which made it in turn hard to investigate. The report stated: “These arrangements were designed to reduce tax bills. They have also had the effect of reducing levels of corporate transparency.”

BHS may have failed as a company, but its demise has succeeded in uniting the left and right. Trade unionists want more protection for workers; City boys are worried about their reputation; patriots mourn the death of a proud British company. May has a mandate to clean up capitalism - she should seize it.