German banks, British lessons

Britain's sprawling giants aren't the best way to run a banking system

Since the financial crisis in 2009, a blame-game has raged between Britain’s large banks on the one side, and British politicians and businesses on the other. Last year, the Government launched "Project Merlin", warning the banks that a failure to meet lending targets would be met with reprisals. When it later transpired that the banks had missed the target for lending to SMEs, the Federation of Small Businesses said that the project had "failed". The banks replied that "the business demand for credit remains weak" and the Government sat on the fence protesting that "it's going to take some time before the banking sector is back to normal".

Businesses argue that the banks aren’t lending; the banks retort that businesses don’t want to borrow. The problem with the entire debate is that it ignores the real issue: why does Britain have to rely on banks that were crippled by the crisis?

That banks aren’t lending is not disputed: Bank of England figures show that total lending to businesses, not including property lending or to financial firms, fell by 11 per cent between 2008 and 2010 and the evidence since then suggests it has continued to fall. While some of this can be attributed to falling demand, more important is the fact that Britain’s large banks are rebuilding their tattered balance sheets by cutting credit. In a more competitive market, rivals would step in and capitalise on the weakness of the embattled institutions; unfortunately for the UK’s businesses, Britain’s banking market is far from competitive.

If only they were based in Stuttgart rather than Stockport. German businesses do not face the same hurdles in accessing credit as their British counterparts because they are served by a far more diverse and competitive banking system. In Germany, commercial banks, such as Deutsche Bank and Commerzbank, compete with a large cooperative banking sector and, more importantly, a large local savings bank sector. In 2011, total loans by the savings banks or Sparkassen stood at €322 billion whereas the total loan stock of Germany’s large commercial banks was only €177 billion. Like Britain’s large banks, Germany’s large commercial banks cut credit during the financial crisis; lending fell by 10 per cent between 2006 and the middle of 2011. In contrast, the Sparkassen increased lending by 17 per cent and continue to do so; when their competitors were flagging they cleaned up.

If it were not seriously hampering the British economy it would be amusing to reflect upon the irony that Germany and its social market possessed a far more efficient and competitive banking system than Britain, birthplace of laissez-faire capitalism. It is also interesting that the Sparkassen, who currently have the edge, were once derided as uncompetitive and inefficient. The Sparkassen are governed by Federal and state law in Germany. According to the Banking Act of the Federal Republic of Germany they must restrict their activities to their local area. Furthermore, profit is not the main purpose of their business; rather their success is tied to that of their local economy. These restrictions were once viewed as anachronistic and antithetical to an efficient market economy and for years the Sparkassen were forced to fend off attacks from the European Commission and Germany’s commercial banks.

Representatives of the banks often muse that the financial crisis saved them: their local focus and commitment to local businesses re-emphasized the contribution they make to the stability and prosperity of the German economy.

British businesses and consumers perhaps hope that the crisis will produce a similar epiphany amongst British policy-makers. The Government needs to remove the significant regulatory barriers that hamper new entrants, encourage entrepreneurial local authorities that wish to institute local banks in their communities, and support credit unions as they look to use their new powers to compete with commercial banks. These are all steps that must be taken if a more competitive and diverse banking sector is to be created, but first we need to take a good look at what’s going on beyond the Rhine.

Credit cards for a Sparkasse. 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

Photo: Getty
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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.