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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The campaign to keep Britain in Europe must be based on hope, not fear

Together we can show the world a generous, outward-facing Britain we can all be proud of.

Today the Liberal Democrats launched our national campaign to keep Britain in Europe. With the polls showing the outcome of this referendum is on a knife-edge, our party is determined to play a decisive role in this once in a generation fight. This will not be an easy campaign. But it is one we will relish as the UK's most outward-looking and internationalist party. Together in Europe the UK has delivered peace, created the world’s largest free trade area and given the British people the opportunity to live, work and travel freely across the continent. Now is the time to build on these achievements, not throw them all away.

Already we are hearing fear-mongering from both sides in this heated debate. On the one hand, Ukip and the feuding Leave campaigns have shamelessly seized on the events in Cologne at New Year to claim that British women will be at risk if the UK stays in Europe. On the other, David Cameron claims that the refugees he derides as a "bunch of migrants" in Calais will all descend on the other side of the Channel the minute Britain leaves the EU. The British public deserve better than this. Rather than constant mud-slinging and politicising of the world's biggest humanitarian crisis since the Second World War, we need a frank and honest debate about what is really at stake. Most importantly this should be a positive campaign, one that is fought on hope and not on fear. As we have a seen in Scotland, a referendum won through scare tactics alone risks winning the battle but losing the war.

The voice of business and civil society, from scientists and the police to environmental charities, have a crucial role to play in explaining how being in the EU benefits the British economy and enhances people's everyday lives. All those who believe in Britain's EU membership must not be afraid to speak out and make the positive case why being in Europe makes us more prosperous, stable and secure. Because at its heart this debate is not just about facts and figures, it is about what kind of country we want to be.

The Leave campaigns cannot agree what they believe in. Some want the UK to be an offshore, deregulated tax haven, others advocate a protectionist, mean-hearted country that shuts it doors to the world. As with so many populist movements, from Putin to Trump, they are defined not by what they are for but what they are against. Their failure to come up with a credible vision for our country's future is not patriotic, it is irresponsible.

This leaves the field open to put forward a united vision of Britain's place in Europe and the world. Liberal Democrats are clear what we believe in: an open, inclusive and tolerant nation that stands tall in the world and doesn't hide from it. We are not uncritical of the EU's institutions. Indeed as Liberals, we fiercely believe that power must be devolved to the lowest possible level, empowering communities and individuals wherever possible to make decisions for themselves. But we recognise that staying in Europe is the best way to find the solutions to the problems that don't stop at borders, rather than leaving them to our children and grandchildren. We believe Britain must put itself at the heart of our continent's future and shape a more effective and more accountable Europe, focused on responding to major global challenges we face.

Together in Europe we can build a strong and prosperous future, from pioneering research into life-saving new medicines to tackling climate change and fighting international crime. Together we can provide hope for the desperate and spread the peace we now take for granted to the rest of the world. And together we can show the world a generous, outward-facing Britain we can all be proud of. So if you agree then join the Liberal Democrat campaign today, to remain in together, and to stand up for the type of Britain you think we should be.