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

Getty
Show Hide image

How Theresa May laid a trap for herself on the immigration target

When Home Secretary, she insisted on keeping foreign students in the figures – causing a headache for herself today.

When Home Secretary, Theresa May insisted that foreign students should continue to be counted in the overall immigration figures. Some cabinet colleagues, including then Business Secretary Vince Cable and Chancellor George Osborne wanted to reverse this. It was economically illiterate. Current ministers, like the Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, Chancellor Philip Hammond and Home Secretary Amber Rudd, also want foreign students exempted from the total.

David Cameron’s government aimed to cut immigration figures – including overseas students in that aim meant trying to limit one of the UK’s crucial financial resources. They are worth £25bn to the UK economy, and their fees make up 14 per cent of total university income. And the impact is not just financial – welcoming foreign students is diplomatically and culturally key to Britain’s reputation and its relationship with the rest of the world too. Even more important now Brexit is on its way.

But they stayed in the figures – a situation that, along with counterproductive visa restrictions also introduced by May’s old department, put a lot of foreign students off studying here. For example, there has been a 44 per cent decrease in the number of Indian students coming to Britain to study in the last five years.

Now May’s stubbornness on the migration figures appears to have caught up with her. The Times has revealed that the Prime Minister is ready to “soften her longstanding opposition to taking foreign students out of immigration totals”. It reports that she will offer to change the way the numbers are calculated.

Why the u-turn? No 10 says the concession is to ensure the Higher and Research Bill, key university legislation, can pass due to a Lords amendment urging the government not to count students as “long-term migrants” for “public policy purposes”.

But it will also be a factor in May’s manifesto pledge (and continuation of Cameron’s promise) to cut immigration to the “tens of thousands”. Until today, ministers had been unclear about whether this would be in the manifesto.

Now her u-turn on student figures is being seized upon by opposition parties as “massaging” the migration figures to meet her target. An accusation for which May only has herself, and her steadfast politicising of immigration, to blame.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

0800 7318496