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.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Brexiteers want national sovereignty and tighter borders – but they can't have both

The role of the European Court of Justice is a major sticking point in talks.

Why doesn't Theresa May's counter-offer on the rights of European citizens living and working in Britain pass muster among the EU27? It all comes down to one of the biggest sticking points in the Brexit talks: the role of the European Court of Justice.

The European Commission, under direction from the leaders of member states, wants the rights of the three million living here and of the British diaspora in the EU guaranteed by the European Court. Why? Because that way, the status of EU citizens here or that of British nationals in the EU aren't subject to the whims of a simple majority vote in the legislature.

This is where Liam Fox, as crassly he might have put it, has a point about the difference between the UK and the EU27, being that the UK does not "need to bury" its 20th century history. We're one of the few countries in the EU where political elites get away with saying, "Well, what's the worst that could happen?" when it comes to checks on legislative power. For the leaders of member states, a guarantee not backed up by the European Court of Justice is no guarantee at all.

That comes down to the biggest sticking point of the Brexit talks: rules. In terms of the deal that most British voters, Leave or Remain, want – a non-disruptive exit that allows the British government to set immigration policy – UK politicians can get that, provided they concede on money and rules, ie we continue to follow the directions of the European Court while having no power to set them. Britain could even seek its own trade deals and have that arrangement.

But the problem is that deal runs up against the motivations of the Brexit elite, who are in the main unfussed about migration but are concerned about sovereignty – and remaining subject to the rule of the ECJ without being able to set its parameters is, it goes without saying, a significant loss of sovereignty. 

Can a fudge be found? That the Article 50 process goes so heavily in favour of the EU27 and against the leaving member means that the appetite on the EuCo side for a fudge is limited. 

But there is hope, as David Davis has conceded that there will have to be an international guarantor, as of course there will have to be. If you trade across borders, you need a cross-border referee. If a plane goes up in one country and lands in another, then it is, by necessity, regulated across borders. (That arrangement has also been mooted by Sigmar Gabriel, foreign minister in Angela Merkel's government. But that Gabriel's centre-left party looks likely to be expelled from coalition after the next election means that his support isn't as valuable as many Brexiteers seem to think.)

On the Conservative side, a new EU-UK international body would satisfy the words of May's ECJ red line. On the EU27 side, that the body would, inevitably, take its lead from the treaties of the EU sans Britain and the ECJ would mean that in spirit, Britain would be subject to the ECJ by another name.

But it comes back to the Brexit dilemma. You can satisfy the voters' demand for non-disruptive control of British borders. You can satisfy political demand for sovereignty. But you can't have both. May – and whoever replaces her – will face the same question: who do you disappoint?

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

0800 7318496