US press: pick of the papers

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

1. How China steals our secrets (New York Times)

By failing to act, Washington is effectively fulfilling China's research requirements while helping to put Americans out of work, writes Richard Clarke.

2. Lévy for le president (Wall Street Journal)

This editorial asks: How about a write-in ballot for Maurice Lévy, whose business success is making him the most publicly reviled man in the country?

3. How Romney can overcome his shortcomings (Washington Post)

Romney, who speaks politics awkwardly, now faces his largest political task: He must be something more than a generic Republican, says Michael Gerson.

4. And now, the Veepstakes (New York Times)

Don't throw your own hat into the ring. If the last few election cycles are any guide, to be named a running mate is to befall an evil spell that ultimately strains your sanity, scrambles your future and does grievous injury to your reputation, writes Frank Bruni.

5. Bosnian war offers lessons for Syria's conflict (Washington Post)

Bosnia shows the way. The Syrian war will worsen. Many more people will be killed and, finally, the United States will have to show Turkey and Saudi Arabia how these things are done, writes Richard Cohen.

6. Obamacare will be Romney's savior (LA Times)

Romney has been attacking Obamacare since its inception. "I'll stop it in its tracks on Day One!" he promises constantly on the stump, says Johah Goldberg.

7. Romney's "Women Problem" (Wall Street Journal)

William McGurn says that Romney's inability to generate much excitement among women appears related to a general inability to generate much excitement among anyone.

8. Battle hymn of the anti-abortion feminist (Politico)

In the ongoing debate over women's health care, one voice has been mostly absent: that of the anti-abortion feminist, writes Lila Rose.

9. The imagination goes wild: Paying for the health care of the irresponsible (Chicago Tribune)

You healthy people will be paying more for juicers, addicts, gangbangers, smokers, fatsos, drunken drivers and other assorted careless, thoughtless creatures, writes Dennis Byrne.

10. Obama joins attacks on court even before health care ruling (Washington Examiner)

During his 2010 State of the Union speech, he took the rare step of scolding the Supreme Court as justices looked on in the House chamber, says this editorial.

President Obama speaking at the White House Rose Garden 2 April. Credit: Getty Images
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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