If US banks are coining it in now, what's going to happen when the economy really recovers?

The first results come in.

If you look hard enough, you can just about find evidence of the US economy moving in the right direction.

Figures released yesterday highlighted that US banks re-possessed 17 per cent fewer homes in 2012 than in 2011. Meantime, a report from the US Commerce Department showed that housing stats rose by 12.1 per cent in December year-on-year to hit their highest monthly level since June 2008.

The slow rebound in US house prices provides further evidence of possible green shoots of recovery. The huge tide of negative equity has been a disaster for the US economy. Almost 11m US homes, or about 22 per cent of all residential properties with a mortgage were in negative equity at the end of the third quarter. The recent slight rise in US house prices meant that around 100,000 mortgage customers slipped back into positive equity in the quarter running up to Christmas with scope for a further 1.8m US homeowners estimated to have some equity in their homes during 2012.

From the evidence of the first banks to post annual results as the reporting season kicked off this week, US banks are already coining it in.

The largest US bank, JPMorgan Chase reported its highest ever annual profit after tax, $21.3bn, up 12 per cent for the year.

The country’s fourth-largest lender, Wells Fargo also hit a record high net profit: $18.9bn, up 19 per cent from 2011.

Hot on its heels, the fourth-largest lender, US Bank, posted a record full year profit of $5.6bn, up 16 per cent year-on-year.

Stand by, perhaps in a year or two, for commentators and politicians to express moral indignation at excessive bank profits if and when the US economy really does start to recover.

US unemployment remains stubbornly high at almost 8 per cent, but just a 1 per cent fall will feed through into a further sharp rise in US bank profits. At JPMorgan, 2012 earnings would have been even higher but for a $6bn trading loss at the bank last year.

Chase "punished" CEO Jamie Dimon by slashing his 2012 pay package to a mere $11.5m from $23.1m the previous year. He should however be able to jog along on his reduced pay package. At the last count, he owned bank shares worth $263m.

Sky's the limit. Photograph: Getty Images

Douglas Blakey is the editor of Retail Banker International

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What is the EU customs union and will Brexit make us leave?

International trade secretary Liam Fox's job makes more sense if we leave the customs union. 

Brexiteers and Remoaners alike have spent the winter months talking of leaving the "customs union", and how this should be weighed up against the benefits of controlling immigration. But what does it actually mean, and how is it different from the EU single market?

Imagine a medieval town, with a busy marketplace where traders are buying and selling wares. Now imagine that the town is also protected by a city wall, with guards ready to slap charges on any outside traders who want to come in. That's how the customs union works.  

In essence, a customs union is an agreement between countries not to impose tariffs on imports from within the club, and at the same time impose common tariffs on goods coming in from outsiders. In other words, the countries decide to trade collectively with each other, and bargain collectively with everyone else. 

The EU isn't the only customs union, or even the first in Europe. In the 19th century, German-speaking states organised the Zollverein, or German Customs Union, which in turn paved the way for the unification of Germany. Other customs unions today include the Eurasian Economic Union of central Asian states and Russia. The EU also has a customs union with Turkey.

What is special about the EU customs union is the level of co-operation, with member states sharing commercial policies, and the size. So how would leaving it affect the UK post-Brexit?

The EU customs union in practice

The EU, acting on behalf of the UK and other member states, has negotiated trade deals with countries around the world which take years to complete. The EU is still mired in talks to try to pull off the controversial Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) with the US, and a similar EU-Japan trade deal. These two deals alone would cover a third of all EU trade.

The point of these deals is to make it easier for the EU's exporters to sell abroad, keep imports relatively cheap and at the same time protect the member states' own businesses and consumers as much as possible. 

The rules of the customs union require member states to let the EU negotiate on their behalf, rather than trying to cut their own deals. In theory, if the UK walks away from the customs union, we walk away from all these trade deals, but we also get a chance to strike our own. 

What are the UK's options?

The UK could perhaps come to an agreement with the EU where it continues to remain inside the customs union. But some analysts believe that door has already shut. 

One of Theresa May’s first acts as Prime Minister was to appoint Liam Fox, the Brexiteer, as the secretary of state for international trade. Why would she appoint him, so the logic goes, if there were no international trade deals to talk about? And Fox can only do this if the UK is outside the customs union. 

(Conversely, former Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg argues May will realise the customs union is too valuable and Fox will be gone within two years).

Fox has himself said the UK should leave the customs union but later seemed to backtrack, saying it is "important to have continuity in trade".

If the UK does leave the customs union, it will have the freedom to negotiate, but will it fare better or worse than the EU bloc?

On the one hand, the UK, as a single voice, can make speedy decisions, whereas the EU has a lengthy consultative process (the Belgian region of Wallonia recently blocked the entire EU-Canada trade deal). Incoming US President Donald Trump has already said he will try to come to a deal quickly

On the other, the UK economy is far smaller, and trade negotiators may discover they have far less leverage acting alone. 

Unintended consequences

There is also the question of the UK’s membership of the World Trade Organisation, which is currently governed by its membership of the customs union. According to the Institute for Government: “Many countries will want to be clear about the UK’s membership of the WTO before they open negotiations.”

And then there is the question of policing trade outside of the customs union. For example, if it was significantly cheaper to import goods from China into Ireland, a customs union member, than Northern Ireland, a smuggling network might emerge.

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.