Will John Vickers listen to Mervyn King?

Bank of England governor says it's time to separate retail and investment banking.

In his City and Finance column in this week's magazine, Alex Preston examines the annual results recently announced by two of the banks part-owned by the British taxpayer, Lloyds and Royal Bank of Scotland. Of RBS's announcement of an operating profit of £2bn in 2010, Alex says this:

The bank's chairman, Philip Hampton, described this as a "step change", a claim validated by the £7.4bn operating profit in the "core" businesses - the day-to-day retail, corporate and investment banking units. The drop in investment banking income (down 30 per cent from 2009) and rise in corporate and retail profits (up 65 per cent) are a sign that RBS is returning to what made it great in the first place - old-fashioned high-street and business banking.

Alex ends his column by looking forward to the recommendations of the Vickers commission on banking, which is due to report to George Osborne in the autumn, and wonders what impact a possible break-up of the banks or the separation of retail from investment banking would have on RBS's share price - this at a time when staff of UK Financial Investments are racking up the air miles canvassing possible buyers for the bank.

A fascinating interview by Charles Moore with Mervyn King in today's Daily Telegraph suggests that the governor of the Bank of England is hoping that Vickers will recommend far-reaching structural reform of the banking industry:

I quote to him the recent remarks of Stephen Hester, the chief executive of the largely publicly owned RBS, in which he seemed simultaneously to say that RBS should pay little tax because it had made little profit, but also that it should pay big bonuses because its investment arm had made big profits. Wasn't there some sort of contradiction? Mr King nods. The remark illustrates, he says, the clash between the needs of high-street banking and the ambitions of investment banking. The key question, in his view, is not why an individual bank says it needs to pay bonuses (the reason cited is always the need to keep talent), but: "Why do banks in general want to pay bonuses? It's because they live in a 'too big to fail' world in which the state will bail them out on the downside." They are tempted to excessive risk and excessive payments: "It is very unproductive to single out individuals. Bankers were given incentives to behave the way they did. That's what needs to change. We must resolve this problem." He has high hopes that the independent banking commission will do so. In the Governor's mind, this is not ultimately a technical but a moral question. It goes to the heart of whether people are ready to accept life in a free economy.

Will Vickers listen?

 

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

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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