BBA cedes Libor role – who will replace them?

The government may want a place in the process.

The British Bankers Association has voted to cede its role in the setting of Libor, the benchmark of borrowing costs which lay at the centre of the Barclays rate-fixing scandal.

The BBA, the professional body of the banking industry in Britain, voted to cede its role last week, at the request of officials who, according to the Financial Times (£) plan to announce a replacement process on Friday.

The managing director of the Financial Services Authority, Martin Wheatley, is chairing the review of the reference rates, and the BBA has said in a statement that it:

Seeks to work with the Wheatley review team as they complete their consultation on the future of Libor. If Mr Wheatley’s recommendations include a change of responsibility for Libor, the BBA will support that.

While the BBA has ceded its role, the organisation which sets Libor's sibling rate, Euribor, has no such plans. Even though Euribor was also subject to attempted manipulation by Barclays, the European Banking Federation, which controls it, told the FT that:

There is no comparison with the Libor case. Our stakeholders are national associations and not the banks themselves, this prevents any potential conflict of interest in hosting the governance of benchmarks.

The big question remaining to be answered is what recommendations Wheatley will offer. There have been no shortage of inventive solutions as to how to set Libor in a non-manipulable way.

In July, Frank Portnoy suggested what remains the most ingenious possibility:

The teeth of the new regulation would be a rule requiring the bank that submitted the lowest Libor estimate to lend a significant amount of money, say $1bn, to the Libor Trust at its submitted low rate. Conversely, the bank submitting the highest Libor estimate would be required to borrow the same amount from the Libor Trust, in the relevant currency for the specified period of time, at its submitted high rate.

But as Reviews tend to be less "inventive" and more "gut wrenchingly predictable", it seems more likely he will hew closer to Nils Pratley's suggestion in the Guardian:

A mass of technical issues remain for Martin Wheatley, the Financial Services Authority official leading the inquiry, to address in his report on Friday. For example: how do you switch to surer benchmarks based on actual lending if there are no transactions on a given day in some of the markets? Remember, there is no single Libor rate; instead there are benchmarks covering 15 borrowing periods in 10 different currencies.

That's one detailed puzzle for Wheatley to solve. But his main proposal should be easy: make it a criminal act to try to manipulate Libor.

Expect more legislation, more intervention, and a lot of locking of stable doors when the horse is nowhere to be found.

Buildings in the City. 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