US Press: pick of the papers

The ten must-read opinion pieces from today's US papers.

1. Last chance on mortgage mess (Poliltico)

The financial sector has been the Obama administration's Achilles' heel, writes Simon Johnson.

2. Time to bring back Bill Clinton (Washington Post)

If Republicans are yet again tempted by Newt Gingrich, then Democrats must bring back his nemesis Bill Clinton, writes David Maraniss.

3. Government, big or small (Los Angeles Times)

Presidents from Nixon to Obama have promised to streamline government, but in truth they've usually found uses for government power instead, says Brent Cebul.

4. For GOP candidates, 10 questions from Florida (Tampa Bay Times)

The Republicans should be able to answer 10 questions ahead of the Florida primary, according to this editorial.

5. The war on political free speech (Wall Street Journal) (£)

Two years after the US Supreme Court's Citizens United ruling, the campaign to silence opponents is becoming more censorious, says Bradley Smith.

6. Why we will no longer endorse in elections (Chicago Sun Times)

The Chicago Sun-Times Editorial Board will approach election coverage in a new way, according to this editorial.

7. The GOP's final four face an impulsive electorate (USA Today)

Eight days remain before a very different test in Florida, a far larger state where voters aren't the same mix of conservative evangelicals who dominate in South Carolina, says this editorial.

8. 'Reformer' Gingrich embodies what is wrong with Washington (Washington Examiner)

Gingrich exemplifies what is wrong with Washington in both parties -- professional politicians say all the right things, but they keep doing the wrong things, this editorial argues.

9.Is our economy healing? (New York Times) (£)

There is a case for modest optimism when it comes to the economy, writes Paul Krugman.

10.Warning: this site contains conspiracy theories (Slate)

Google has a responsibility to help stop "fringe beliefs" such as 9/11 denialism which should be given a "socially responsible curated treatment" , argues Evgeny Morozov.

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Labour's investment bank plan could help fix our damaging financial system

The UK should learn from the success of a similar project in Germany.

Labour’s election manifesto has proved controversial, with the Tories and the right-wing media claiming it would take us back to the 1970s. But it contains at least one excellent idea which is certainly not out-dated and which would in fact help to address a key problem in our post-financial-crisis world.

Even setting aside the damage wrought by the 2008 crash, it’s clear the UK’s financial sector is not serving the real economy. The New Economics Foundation recently revealed that fewer than 10% of the total stock of UK bank loans are to non-financial and non-real estate businesses. The majority of their lending goes to other financial sector firms, insurance and pension funds, consumer finance, and commercial real estate.

Labour’s proposed UK Investment Bank would be a welcome antidote to a financial system that is too often damaging or simply useless. There are many successful examples of public development banks in the world’s fastest-growing economies, such as China and Korea. However, the UK can look closer to home for a suitable model: the KfW in Germany (not exactly a country known for ‘disastrous socialist policies’). With assets of over 500bn, the KfW is the world’s largest state-owned development bank when its size is measured as a percentage of GDP, and it is an institution from which the UK can draw much-needed lessons if it wishes to create a financial system more beneficial to the real economy.

Where does the money come from? Although KfW’s initial paid-up capital stems purely from public sources, it currently funds itself mainly through borrowing cheaply on the international capital markets with a federal government guarantee,  AA+ rating, and safe haven status for its public securities. With its own high ratings, the UK could easily follow this model, allowing its bank to borrow very cheaply. These activities would not add to the long-run public debt either: by definition an investment bank would invest in projects that would stimulate growth.

Aside from the obviously countercyclical role KfW played during the financial crisis, ramping up total business volume by over 40 per cent between 2007 and 2011 while UK banks became risk averse and caused a credit crunch, it also plays an important part in financing key sectors of the real economy that would otherwise have trouble accessing funds. This includes investment in research and innovation, and special programs for SMEs. Thanks to KfW, as well as an extensive network of regional and savings banks, fewer German SMEs report access to finance as a major problem than in comparator Euro area countries.

The Conservatives have talked a great deal about the need to rebalance the UK economy towards manufacturing. However, a real industrial policy needs more than just empty rhetoric: it needs finance. The KfW has historically played an important role in promoting German manufacturing, both at home and abroad, and to this day continues to provide finance to encourage the export of high-value-added German products

KfW works by on-lending most of its funds through the private banking system. This means that far from being the equivalent of a nationalisation, a public development bank can coexist without competing with the rest of the financial system. Like the UK, Germany has its share of large investment banks, some of which have caused massive instabilities. It is important to note that the establishment of a public bank would not have a negative effect on existing private banks, because in the short term, the UK will remain heavily dependent on financial services.

The main problem with Labour’s proposal is therefore not that too much of the financial sector will be publicly owned, but too little. Its proposed lending volume of £250bn over 10 years is small compared to the KfW’s total financing commitments of  750 billion over the past 10 years. Although the proposal is better than nothing, in order to be effective a public development bank will need to have sufficient scale.

Finally, although Brexit might make it marginally easier to establish the UK Investment Bank, because the country would no longer be constrained by EU State Aid Rules or the Maastricht criteria, it is worth remembering that KfW’s sizeable range of activities is perfectly legal under current EU rules.

So Europe cannot be blamed for holding back UK financial sector reform to date - the problem is simply a lack of political will in the current government. And with even key architects of 1980s financial liberalisation, such as the IMF and the economist Jeffrey Sachs, rethinking the role of the financial sector, isn’t it time Britain did the same?

Dr Natalya Naqvi is a research fellow at University College and the Blavatnik School of Government, University of Oxford, where she focuses on the role of the state and the financial sector in economic development

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