We need a proper British Investment Bank, not Osborne's half measure

The Chancellor's small business bank is too modest to make a significant difference to growth.

The latest growth initiative from George Osborne is a state-backed small business bank. The Chancellor said over the weekend that the difficulties small businesses face when trying to get the credit they need to keep going or to expand is one of the biggest problems holding back the UK economy. He has already tried to ease this problem with "Project Merlin" (lending targets for commercial banks), a national loan guarantee scheme and most recently the "funding for lending" initiative. Depending on your option, his latest idea can be seen as building on these previous schemes, or an acceptance that they were not up to the task of getting credit flowing in the economy.

But will it work? That will depend very much on how ambitious the Chancellor chooses to be – and the first signs are not encouraging. The bank is being described as a "one-stop shop": bringing together in one place all the various schemes and initiatives designed by government to help small businesses. No doubt this will be helpful for small businesses, making it easier for them to find a way through the Whitehall maze. But what small businesses really want is an increase in the amount of credit available to them and a reduction in the cost of that credit. It is not immediately apparent that the Chancellor’s new bank will deliver on these aims.

Other countries have national investment banks of varying descriptions, including the KfW in Germany and the Small Business Administration in the United States, and the Chancellor’s idea seems most closely modelled on the latter. But importing wholesale the model of any one overseas bank is unlikely to be the best approach.

What we need in the UK is a fully-fledged British Investment Bank designed to suit the particular circumstances of our economy. This Bank should be set up to tackle two longstanding problems: a tendency to invest less in infrastructure (as a share of GDP) than comparable economies and a shortage of financing, particularly long-term financing, for small and medium-sized businesses.

There are a number of important questions to be addressed before such a Bank could set up – and, like the Green Investment Bank, it would need to secure EU state aid approval - but some of the parameters should be clear. The Bank would be 100 per cent state-owned. Its remit would be to increase lending for infrastructure and to SMEs. And its governance structure would have to ensure there was a clear dividing line between where the role of the government ended and the activities of the bankers began.

More controversial would be the capitalisation of the Bank and its ability to raise additional funds in the capital markets. The Green Investment Bank will have an initial capitalisation of £3bn and will not be able to borrow money at least until the government debt ratio is on a downward trajectory (because its activities count as part of the public sector). The same consideration would, no doubt, prevent the current Chancellor from creating a fully-fledged British Investment Bank.

But there is a qualitative difference between the government having to borrow because its current spending commitments are greater than the sums it is prepared to raise in taxes and a BIB raising funds in asset markets to use to finance infrastructure projects that will generate a stream of income in the future, or to lend to small businesses. A British Investment Bank should not be held back by the vagaries of the UK’s accounting practices. Its activities (and those of the Green Investment Bank) should be excluded from the government’s target fiscal measures and it should be free to raise funds up to a pre-determined leverage ratio

The government would, though, have to provide the new Bank with its initial capital. One option would be tell the Bank of England to do another round of quantitative easing specifically for this purpose. Alternatively, the funds would have to be found by cutting other spending, increased taxation, the sale of government assets or extra borrowing. Given the Chancellor’s unwavering adherence to his fiscal plans, this is likely to be a stumbling block to any hopes of a British Investment Bank in the next few years.

And this is now the biggest problem facing the UK economy. Because the Chancellor will not spend more money boosting aggregate demand in the economy, whether directly through infrastructure spending or a temporary tax cut or indirectly by capitalising a British Investment Bank with a directive to lend to small businesses, he is reduced to indirect schemes like funding for lending or the pension infrastructure plan. These require shifts in behaviour by the banks and pension schemes if they are to work. Unsurprisingly, they are not as effective as more direct approaches.

The Chancellor’s state-backed small business bank fits into the same pattern. It is a half measure, bringing together existing initiatives, rather than the creation of the fully-fledged British Investment Bank that the economy really needs.

Tony Dolphin is Chief Economist at IPPR

Chancellor George Osborne plans to create a state-backed small business bank. Photograph: Getty Images.

Tony Dolphin is chief economist at IPPR

Photo: Getty
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Theresa May is paying the price for mismanaging Boris Johnson

The Foreign Secretary's bruised ego may end up destroying Theresa May. 

And to think that Theresa May scheduled her big speech for this Friday to make sure that Conservative party conference wouldn’t be dominated by the matter of Brexit. Now, thanks to Boris Johnson, it won’t just be her conference, but Labour’s, which is overshadowed by Brexit in general and Tory in-fighting in particular. (One imagines that the Labour leadership will find a way to cope somehow.)

May is paying the price for mismanaging Johnson during her period of political hegemony after she became leader. After he was betrayed by Michael Gove and lacking any particular faction in the parliamentary party, she brought him back from the brink of political death by making him Foreign Secretary, but also used her strength and his weakness to shrink his empire.

The Foreign Office had its responsibility for negotiating Brexit hived off to the newly-created Department for Exiting the European Union (Dexeu) and for navigating post-Brexit trade deals to the Department of International Trade. Johnson was given control of one of the great offices of state, but with no responsibility at all for the greatest foreign policy challenge since the Second World War.

Adding to his discomfort, the new Foreign Secretary was regularly the subject of jokes from the Prime Minister and cabinet colleagues. May likened him to a dog that had to be put down. Philip Hammond quipped about him during his joke-fuelled 2017 Budget. All of which gave Johnson’s allies the impression that Johnson-hunting was a licensed sport as far as Downing Street was concerned. He was then shut out of the election campaign and has continued to be a marginalised figure even as the disappointing election result forced May to involve the wider cabinet in policymaking.

His sense of exclusion from the discussions around May’s Florence speech only added to his sense of isolation. May forgot that if you aren’t going to kill, don’t wound: now, thanks to her lost majority, she can’t afford to put any of the Brexiteers out in the cold, and Johnson is once again where he wants to be: centre-stage. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.