Revealed: where Vince Cable got his RBS plan from

The problem is, he isn't really following it to the letter.

Blogger Left Outside thought that the proposals by what the FT called "cabinet ministers" – "it's Vince Cable, everyone knows it's Vince!" – to fully nationalise RBS in order to be able to force it to start lending serious amounts of money to small and medium enterprisise sounded familiar. So they dug around the archives and found Giles Wilkes' paper for Orange Book Lib Dem think-tank Centre Forum from 2010, Credit where it's due: making QE work for the real economy.

What Vince is suggesting is basically creating an independent, government owned bank to finally start an effective policy of credit easing. Although Osborne has used the phrase before, he has been hamstrung by the desire not to do it directly, and the carrot-and-stick approach he has taken up doesn't seem to be convincing the banks to do it themselves.

Wilkes' overview of his paper laid out the plan:

"In deploying quantitative easing, the Bank may have forestalled a total collapse in our financial system. But QE has been less successful at stimulating the real economy. Now it needs reform if it is to restore the confidence needed for sustained growth. Money that is subsidizing the borrowing costs of the state should instead be helping smaller businesses and households.

"The Bank should start by targeting a high level of nominal growth until the economy is performing at its potential. This will reassure the private sector that liquidity won’t dry up in the near future, and so encourage more investment now. The second step should be for ‘credit easing’ to replace ‘quantitative easing’. The Bank’s independence of action on traditional monetary matters should be respected. But by putting taxpayer’s money at risk, QE is as much fiscal as monetary policy. So it is quite right for the government to direct the Bank to deploy the funds in the private economy, which is where it is really needed. For example, the money could help guarantee loans to small companies, or alleviate the dearth of financing for long-term infrastructure.

"With incomes stagnating and huge spending cuts in prospect, the Bank is right to ignore scare stories about spiralling inflation. It should even consider expanding the programme if the economy stays weak. What it should not do, however, is increase the size of QE without changing the way it works. It is time that politicians realised that QE is their business, and that failure to make it work properly will be their failure."

Notice anything strange, though? Vince seems to have jumped straight to step two in Wilkes' plan, skipping entirely the rather cruical first step.

Nominal growth targeting involves switching the Bank's aim from keeping inflation within 1 percentage point of 2 per cent inflation to attempting to keep nominal growth at certain level (usually around 4-6 per cent). The cruicial difference between the two being that it would allow the bank, in times of crisis (like now!) to allow higher inflation.

This matters for Cable's plan because the immediate impact of increasing the number of loans to SMEs would likely be a - temporary - burst of inflation. As companies borrow to expand production, all sorts of macroeconomic effects kick in. Young workers gain employment and move out of their parents houses (increasing the cost of housing), more people drive to work (increasing the cost of fuel), businesses invest in machinery and equipment (increasing the cost of those) and so on. This inflation would be temporary, because eventually the bottlenecks in those industries would be expanded, but it would still be felt.

Yet with the bank's mandate as it is now, it would have to respond to that inflation spike by tightening monetary policy. Interest rates go up, lending gets more expensive, and everything good is bad again. We'll see if that is how it actually plays out. Of course, the political game is, as ever, where the real action lies.

Business Secretary Vince Cable addresses employees at the BMW MINI plant in Oxford. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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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