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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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