Don't be fooled. This is still a banking crisis

And our elected politicians should call the bankers' bluff.

RBS chief executive Stephen Hester Source: Getty Images

Let's get one thing clear: this is not a crisis of, or for governments. This is first and foremost a banking crisis.

EU governments do not need a fragile, reckless and immensely wealthy private banking sector. However, as the financial markets made clear last week, the fragile private banking sector urgently needs Eurozone and in particular, taxpayer largesse.

For more than thirty years of financial de-regulation, western taxpayers have shored up and guaranteed the immense wealth and reckless lending of private bankers and their shareholders. Without their sacrifices, many private, global banks would have been liquidated during the financial crises of the 90s and through 2008. Thanks to public largesse, private bankers, their shareholders and bondholders survived. Some even thrived as weak western politicians failed to demand 'terms and conditions' for bailouts.

Now private banks are once again faced by liquidation - because of reckless and costly lending to poor and economically weak Eurozone governments and banks. If their losses are not socialised, they and their shareholders are doomed.

And so bankers are doing what highway robbers have done throughout time: holding a proverbial gun to the heads of Eurozone politicians and central bankers, and demanding they hand over cash.

Politicians should call their bluff.

Two weeks ago, EU leaders promised to set up a 440 billion-euro fund (the European Financial Stability Facility) that would, for example, help finance Greece's repayments for expensive loans made by UK, French and German banks. But politicians were fuzzy about numbers, because they had to consult EU parliaments. Bankers, facing insolvency, cannot wait for wider consultation.

"Bailouts need a bigger bucket" roared the banker's magazine Barrons. And, it appears, they need it now. The "bucket" is considered "wholly insufficient." Trillions more Euros are needed to shift the burden of losses from the private to the public sectors.

And just in case holidaying politicians failed to get the point, financial markets swung into action, and last Thursday piled on the blackmail.

That is not of course, how bankers see it, or tell it. On Friday, Stephen Hester, chief executive of RBS, told Radio 4's Today programme that "this is not a banking crisis." Instead he argued this is a crisis of "confidence in governments." Governments, he said, "need to give confidence to markets....that they will play their proper role in providing liquidity [my emphasis]. . . not to banks, but to governments, to enable funding to go normally...." He trailed off at this point, but I assume he had meant to add, "to enable funding to go normally to private bankers". Yes, those same bankers that had lent recklessly in the first place.

The fact is this: private bankers need a Eurozone bailout. Eurozone taxpayers do not need private bankers. It is possible, desirable even, to break loose from the chains of financial injustice and untie the cords that yoke the taxpayers of Europe to the interests of a financial elite

We know, because it has been done before.

The last time the world threw off the yoke of private wealth was in the 1930s. In September 1931, Britain's finance sector demanded high interest rates and austerity as the 1929 financial crisis hammered the very people innocent of its causes. At this point Britain, like Greece and Spain today, became defiant. The UK threw off its fetters and left the gold standard - the Euro of a century ago.

Under Keynes's tutelage, Sterling was revived as a money managed in the interests of the domestic economy by the Bank of England. It was protected from speculation and from the vested interests of the financial elite. After the war Britain embarked on one of the finest programme of public works expenditures known in modern history - and society thrived.

Interrupted by war, and diluted at Bretton Woods in 1947, finance was still restrained as servant, not master to the economy through the age of economic and social advance from 1945-1970.

If the Eurozone were to throw off the ties that subordinate it's prosperity to a small financial elite, it would feel the full force of the banking sector's anger through its friends in the media, academia and politics. But very soon, Europeans would come to understand that the alternative was very much better than subjugation to a small, arrogant and morally bankrupt elite.

Ann Pettifor is a director of PRIME, an economic think-tank, and a Fellow of the New Economics Foundation.

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The tale of Battersea power station shows how affordable housing is lost

Initially, the developers promised 636 affordable homes. Now, they have reduced the number to 386. 

It’s the most predictable trick in the big book of property development. A developer signs an agreement with a local council promising to provide a barely acceptable level of barely affordable housing, then slashes these commitments at the first, second and third signs of trouble. It’s happened all over the country, from Hastings to Cumbria. But it happens most often in London, and most recently of all at Battersea power station, the Thames landmark and long-time London ruin which I wrote about in my 2016 book, Up In Smoke: The Failed Dreams of Battersea Power Station. For decades, the power station was one of London’s most popular buildings but now it represents some of the most depressing aspects of the capital’s attempts at regeneration. Almost in shame, the building itself has started to disappear from view behind a curtain of ugly gold-and-glass apartments aimed squarely at the international rich. The Battersea power station development is costing around £9bn. There will be around 4,200 flats, an office for Apple and a new Tube station. But only 386 of the new flats will be considered affordable

What makes the Battersea power station development worse is the developer’s argument for why there are so few affordable homes, which runs something like this. The bottom is falling out of the luxury homes market because too many are being built, which means developers can no longer afford to build the sort of homes that people actually want. It’s yet another sign of the failure of the housing market to provide what is most needed. But it also highlights the delusion of politicians who still seem to believe that property developers are going to provide the answers to one of the most pressing problems in politics.

A Malaysian consortium acquired the power station in 2012 and initially promised to build 517 affordable units, which then rose to 636. This was pretty meagre, but with four developers having already failed to develop the site, it was enough to satisfy Wandsworth council. By the time I wrote Up In Smoke, this had been reduced back to 565 units – around 15 per cent of the total number of new flats. Now the developers want to build only 386 affordable homes – around 9 per cent of the final residential offering, which includes expensive flats bought by the likes of Sting and Bear Grylls. 

The developers say this is because of escalating costs and the technical challenges of restoring the power station – but it’s also the case that the entire Nine Elms area between Battersea and Vauxhall is experiencing a glut of similar property, which is driving down prices. They want to focus instead on paying for the new Northern Line extension that joins the power station to Kennington. The slashing of affordable housing can be done without need for a new planning application or public consultation by using a “deed of variation”. It also means Mayor Sadiq Khan can’t do much more than write to Wandsworth urging the council to reject the new scheme. There’s little chance of that. Conservative Wandsworth has been committed to a developer-led solution to the power station for three decades and in that time has perfected the art of rolling over, despite several excruciating, and occasionally hilarious, disappointments.

The Battersea power station situation also highlights the sophistry developers will use to excuse any decision. When I interviewed Rob Tincknell, the developer’s chief executive, in 2014, he boasted it was the developer’s commitment to paying for the Northern Line extension (NLE) that was allowing the already limited amount of affordable housing to be built in the first place. Without the NLE, he insisted, they would never be able to build this number of affordable units. “The important point to note is that the NLE project allows the development density in the district of Nine Elms to nearly double,” he said. “Therefore, without the NLE the density at Battersea would be about half and even if there was a higher level of affordable, say 30 per cent, it would be a percentage of a lower figure and therefore the city wouldn’t get any more affordable than they do now.”

Now the argument is reversed. Because the developer has to pay for the transport infrastructure, they can’t afford to build as much affordable housing. Smart hey?

It’s not entirely hopeless. Wandsworth may yet reject the plan, while the developers say they hope to restore the missing 250 units at the end of the build.

But I wouldn’t hold your breath.

This is a version of a blog post which originally appeared here.

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