Socially useful

Britain’s love affair with the City seems to be over. But Brian Caplen reminds us why we need the ba

No one likes their bank. Even before the crisis, a sure-fire way of heating up a dinner party or pub conversation would be to voice outrage over a bank's charges, its incompetence or being rejected by it. Everyone around the table would have his own tale of woe and be galvanised into an anti-bank tirade, blaming them for everything from climate change to England's latest sporting failure.

Following the crisis, it is now bankers, as well as banks, who are reviled for their alleged role in building vast financial complexes that earned them millions while bringing the global economy to its knees. These days, even moderate folk can be persuaded of the benefits of violent revolution, if the final goal were the overthrow of bankers and their wretched institutions.

On top of this, Adair Turner, the chairman of the Financial Services Authority, fanned the flames by describing much of what bankers do as "socially useless" and calling for a tax on financial transactions (the Tobin tax, an idea that reappears whenever banks are in the dock).

If banks have become public enemy number one without even having fiddled their expenses or indulged in Tiger Woods-style indiscretions, it goes without saying that they have made a pretty poor fist of presenting their case. And there are no signs of an early reprieve, as politicians have found that bank-bashing is one of the few ways to gain in the opinion polls in these straitened times.

Some chief executive officers of banks have professed a new-found humility over the disastrous course of events - which the media quickly named the new arrogance - but at no stage has there appeared a collective initiative for rehabilitation. Instead of taking centre stage, they have left most of the public pleading to the chief executive of the British Bankers' Association, Angela Knight. A former economic secretary to the Treasury in the last years of John Major's government, Knight has had the unenviable task of fending off broadsides from the Today programme's John Humphrys and an army of other hacks who saw this as a black-and-white, populist tale. With bankers failing to take a stand on pay or take the offensive with a make-good social programme, her task has been an uphill struggle.

This is unfortunate. Most development economists agree that growth is powered by the efficient allocation of credit and that this is better done by the private sector than the state. Economists often discuss the total value of banking lending in relation to the size of an economy (the loans-to-GDP ratio). They agree that countries with lower ratios, such as Brazil and Russia, will find it harder to fulfil their potential than countries with high ratios, such as the US and the UK.

At an individual level, Britons see mortgage finance almost as a right and politicians have preached the virtues of home ownership as a way of catapulting the poor into the middle classes. This is not the case in many other countries, such as Germany, where regulation confines mortgages and home ownership to a much smaller segment of society. Before clamping down too hard on the banks, we need to decide if this is where we want to end up.

Small businesses are always the most vocal of bank bashers but the rawness of their particular deal is relative. The difference between mature and emerging economies is that access to credit is more widespread in the former, and here the UK compares well with many countries. Small business borrowers often use the equity in their property as loan collateral, which is all part of the virtuous circle that emanates from the fostering of home ownership.

In developing countries, where banking services are restricted to an affluent minority, non-governmental organisations have been promoting microfinance (lending small amounts to market stallholders and informal businesses) as a way out of the malaise of entrepreneurs failing through a lack of funding.

The role of the UK, and especially London, as an international financial centre is in another dimension altogether. London is the world's leading financial centre and the envy of Paris and Frankfurt, whose officials would love to crush it - so provoking an exodus of bankers to their jurisdictions. The financial sector is one area of commerce where the UK retains a competitive advantage.

The UK financial services industry employs a million people, one-third of whom are in London. Before the crisis, the financial sector was contributing 25 per cent of the UK's corporate tax revenues and 14 per cent of total tax, which is why New Labour politicians were so much in love with the City. The reason the UK is in such dire circumstances now is not the cost of bailing out the banks - these equity holdings are likely to make a profit for the taxpayer in the long term. It is the catastrophic drop in tax revenues, much of which came from banks.

Kill off the City and this revenue goes, too. Only romantic dreamers believe that the UK could ever recover the role it had in the 19th century, acting as workshop of the world.

Despite the image of the high-rolling City trader as Gordon Gekko, completely amoral and looking only for the main chance at the expense of the innocent and defenceless, most financial business does have a legitimate purpose and an economic rationale. This includes the financing of large-scale infrastructure in developing countries where no domestic bank could ever take on the risk; financing of retirement where the failure to assist companies with their pension liabilities will leave tomorrow's retirees high and dry; and the rise of Islamic finance - in which the UK is a leading player - where the special needs of a community can be met by specific financial instruments.

Bankers' pay is always going to be a contentious area. The banks argue that they must be free to hire talent at the market price and they must operate on a level playing field. The UK's imposition of a 50 per cent super-tax on bonuses risks driving the financial sector to other shores, especially if it becomes permanent, losing much more revenue over the long term than a bonus tax could ever generate. This form of retribution is likely to score a very big own goal for UK plc, even though banks could have done themselves a favour by imposing their own form of one-off restraint.

Banks definitely need to be better regulated and to improve their image. The Banker magazine recently introduced an award for the best bank at promoting financial inclusion among the most marginalised sectors of society. It went to the International Commercial Bank, based in Switzerland, for an Albanian programme to provide orphans with bank accounts, training and the financial backing to set themselves up in business eventually. British banks could learn something from this kind of venture.

Brian Caplen is the editor of "The Banker" magazine

This article is taken from the New Statesman supplement Held To Account: What's next for UK Banking? sponsored by Barclays