The case for a British Investment Bank

The UK is the only member of the G8 not to have a dedicated institution dealing with SME financing.

For some time the calls have increased for the creation of some type of government-backed financing institution to support the UK economy.  This is based not only on the needs created by the perfect storm we have been experiencing since 2008 but also the value which a permanent institution could have for UK plc throughout the economic cycle, and in addressing issues which existed before the credit crunch.  In particular there are two areas where getting investment moving is vital:  the financing of small and medium-sized enterprises (SME) and ensuring we have fit-for-purpose infrastructure.  They are both fundamental for the creation of a growing economy in which business enterprise can flourish.

The non-availability of finance to smaller businesses is long-standing, having been identified in 1931 by the Macmillan Report.  Market failures exist in relation to the provision of both debt and equity.  In many cases this stems from an asymmetry of information between the finance provider and the business.  Financiers find it difficult to distinguish between high and low risk businesses without incurring significant costs which are judged too high in relation to the level of finance being provided, thus reducing profit margins.  The way Banks avoid this is only to finance businesses with a strong track record and/or the provision of collateral (the classic mortgaging of the family home to finance the business).  There are also credit-scoring systems which mean atypical, innovative businesses, which may be economically viable, are unduly penalised because they do not fit the mould.  The regulatory environment is stacked against SMEs as well with banks required to hold more capital when lending to SMEs, resulting in more expensive finance and/or less finance.  Added to that is the lack of competition in the mainstream SME lending market and the trend towards short-termism in lending, with facilities often repayable on demand.

Faced with such systemic deep-seated problems it is surprising, to say the least, that the UK is the only member of the G8 not to have a dedicated institution dealing with SME financing issues.  So there are international examples from which we can learn, notably the activities of KfW in Germany, the Small Business Administration (SBA) in the US and the Business Development Bank of Canada.  Indeed the SBA provided early-stage finance to success stories such as Apple.  There is also past UK experience, in the original activities of the Industrial and Commercial Finance Corporation (ICFC), created immediately after the Second World War to address the funding gap identified by the Macmillan Report.  Its modus operandi was to employ technical specialists, familiar with local business, operating through a regional network.  That original business model was watered down as external investors put pressure on increasing returns more quickly.  The strengths and weaknesses of the ICFC experience need to be borne in mind when considering how to structure any government intervention. 

In the area of infrastructure investment the coalition government's National Infrastructure Plan identifies the huge investment required in infrastructure over the next decade (some £250bn).  We have a nascent model in the area of the green economy, the Green Investment Bank.  Its activities are currently constrained by its inability to borrow until at least 2015 and then only if public sector net debt is falling as a percentage of GDP.  There are likely to be synergies between its current activities and those in the wider area of potential interventions in infrastructure investment and SME finance.  The Green Investment Bank's role is to crowd-in private finance where it can and to demonstrate financeability by being a frontier investor.  It will act in a commercial manner and is not in the business of financing lost causes.  Finance for infrastructure investment is constrained, in part by the retreat of commercial banks from the sector and the demise of credit-enhanced bonds but also as a result of regulatory changes, which make long-term investing in infrastructure more expensive (similar to the SME problem).  The EU has initiatives to attempt to address these issues but their resources are finite and have to cover the entire EU.  Given our investment needs, intervention is also required by government here in the UK.

There are therefore a series of necessary interventions in the areas of SME finance, and infrastructure finance which, based on past and present experience, here and internationally, point towards the creation of a British Investment Bank operating on a commercial basis independent from government. It would also have a public policy mission thus creating a dual-bottom line business strategy.  Given that split and the broad range of interested parties affected by it activities, there is merit in establishing an overarching Advisory Council which would not have executive authority but which would ensure that the board held to its dual strategy.  Members of the Advisory Council could include, among others, representatives of key government departments, trades unions and business.

Funding for the Bank could come from a range of sources, including channelling funds from National Savings and Investments.  Something similar is done to fund comparable institutions in France and Italy.  That would create an effective depositor base for the Bank and give it a platform to develop further products to fund its activities - for example Green ISAs, which could fund interventions by the Green Investment Bank.

If we fail to learn from and embrace the experience of other countries we will, as Ed Miliband said in his speech on 9 July, be condemning businesses to operate with one arm tied behind their backs.

Nicholas Tott is the author of a report for Labour's policy review on "The Case for a British Investment Bank".

The facade of the headquarters of the Bank of England. Photograph: Getty Images.

Nicholas Tott is a consultant for Herbert Smith and the author of a report for Labour's policy review on "The Case for a British Investment Bank".

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Who is the EU's chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier?

The former French foreign minister has shown signs that he will play hardball in negotiations.

The European Commission’s chief Brexit negotiator today set an October 2018 deadline for the terms of Britain’s divorce from the European Union to be agreed. Michel Barnier gave his first press conference since being appointed to head up what will be tough talks between the EU and UK.

Speaking in Brussels, he warned that UK-EU relations had entered “uncharted waters”. He used the conference to effectively shorten the time period for negotiations under Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, the legal process to take Britain out of the EU. The article sets out a two year period for a country to leave the bloc.

But Barnier, 65, warned that the period of actual negotiations would be shorter than two years and there would be less than 18 months to agree Brexit.  If the terms were set in October 2018, there would be five months for the European Parliament, European Council and UK Parliament to approve the deal before a March 2019 Brexit.

But who is the urbane Frenchman who was handpicked by Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker to steer the talks?

A centre-right career politician, Barnier is a member of the pan-EU European People’s Party, like Juncker and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

A committed European and architect of closer eurozone banking integration, Barnier rose to prominence after being elected aged just 27 to the French National Assembly.  He is notorious in Brussels for his repeated references to the 1992 Winter Olympics he organised in Albertville with triple Olympic ski champion Jean-Claude Killy.

He first joined the French cabinet in 1993 as minister of the environment. In 1995, Jacques Chirac made him Secretary of State for European Affairs, teeing up a long and close relationship with Brussels.

Barnier has twice served as France’s European Commissioner, under the administrations of Romano Prodi and José Manuel BarrosoMost recently he was serving as an unpaid special advisor on European Defence Policy to Juncker until the former prime minister of Luxembourg made him Brexit boss.“I wanted an experienced politician for this difficult job,” Juncker said at the time of Barnier, who has supported moves towards an EU army.

 

Barnier and the Brits

Barnier’s appointment was controversial. Under Barroso, he was Internal Market commissioner. Responsible for financial services legislation at the height of the crisis, he clashed with the City of London.

During this period he was memorably described as a man who, in a hall of mirrors, would stop and check his reflection in every one.

Although his battles with London’s bankers were often exaggerated, the choice of Barnier was described as an “act of war” by some British journalists and was greeted with undisguised glee by Brussels europhiles.

Barnier moved to calm those fears today. At the press conference, he said, “I was 20 years old, a very long time ago, when I voted for the first time and it was in the French referendum on the accession of the UK to the EU.

“That time I campaigned for a yes vote. And I still think today that I made right choice.”

But Barnier, seen by some as aloof and arrogant, also showed a mischievous side.  It was reported during Theresa May’s first visit to Brussels as prime minister that he was demanding that all the Brexit talks be conducted in French.

While Barnier does speak English, he is far more comfortable talking in his native French. But the story, since denied, was seen as a snub to the notoriously monolingual Brits.

The long lens photo of a British Brexit strategy note that warned the EU team was “very French” may also have been on his mind as he took the podium in Brussels today.

Barnier asked, “In French or in English?” to laughter from the press.

He switched between English and French in his opening remarks but only answered questions in French, using translation to ensure he understood the questions.

Since his appointment Barnier has posted a series of tweets which could be seen as poking fun at Brexit. On a tour of Croatia to discuss the negotiations, he posed outside Zagreb’s Museum of Broken Relationships asking, “Guess where we are today?”

 

 

He also tweeted a picture of himself drinking prosecco after Boris Johnson sparked ridicule by telling an Italian economics minister his country would have to offer the UK tariff-free trade to sell the drink in Britain.

But Barnier can also be tough. He forced through laws to regulate every financial sector, 40 pieces of legislation in four years, when he was internal market commissioner, in the face of sustained opposition from industry and some governments.

He warned today, "Being a member of the EU comes with rights and benefits. Third countries [the UK] can never have the same rights and benefits since they are not subject to same obligations.”

On the possibility of Britain curbing free movement of EU citizens and keeping access to the single market, he was unequivocal.

“The single market and four freedoms are indivisible. Cherry-picking is not an option,” he said.

He stressed that his priority in the Brexit negotiations would be the interests of the remaining 27 member states of the European Union, not Britain.

“Unity is the strength of the EU and President Juncker and I are determined to preserve the unity and interest of the EU-27 in the Brexit negotiations.”

In a thinly veiled swipe at the British, again greeted with laughter in the press room, he told reporters, “It is much better to show solidarity than stand alone. I repeat, it is much better to show solidarity than stand alone”.

Referring to the iconic British poster that urged Brits to "Keep Calm and Carry On” during World War Two, he today told reporters, “We are ready. Keep calm and negotiate.”

But Barnier’s calm in the face of the unprecedented challenge to the EU posed by Brexit masks a cold determination to defend the European project at any cost.

James Crisp is the news editor at EurActiv, an online EU news service.