Moody's downgrade might be symbolic - but it's still correct

What does it mean, if anything?

Moody’s downgrade of Britain’s credit rating, from AAA to AA1, is largely symbolic, akin to a sticking plaster falling off a major unhealed gash. It will have no effect on the cost of borrowing, so what does it mean, if anything?

First, it was an anomaly that America and France had been downgraded months ago, and that little bankrupt Britain could sail on merrily, as if the only boat in the race without a leak, was plainly ludicrous.

Second, the fact is that there is a major hole below the waterline in the nation’s finances that isn’t being fixed. But compare 600,000 new jobs being created in the last year by the private sector, of which half are full-time: either the figures are wrong, or thousands of jobs have been lost at the same time, by bankrupt retailers and lost manufacturing output.

Third, sterling was on the slide in the FX markets before Moody’s even blew their faint-hearted whistle. This was after Mervyn King of the BoE voted for more QE, despite the fact that he is already sitting atop one-third of the national debt, and could easily topple off this pile of irredeemable IOUs.

Fourth, the national debt, which was meant to be coming down, is now going back up again. Osborne’s cuts were too little, and now are seen to be too late. But the Cameroons are such a lot of new-drippy Old Etonians that they are increasingly seen as a generation that hasn’t got the balls to pick up a sharp axe and really wield it. No pain, no gain.

As a result of reasons one to four, number five is that the economy is going nowhere fast except down a big, black hole called the IMF. Sort it Osborne, or quit! The answer is simple: slash government expenditure and taxation on March 20, not in some mealy-mouthed way as you are currently posturing, but in a determined and dramatic way.

Slash the Gordian knot of ever-advancing EU-driven socialist-bureaucracy! Cut the chain that is holding back the UK private sector, the people who have had proper jobs all their lives! Unlike you miserable lot in government, who have never had a proper productive job at all.

After all, the only man in Britain who is going to say you are wrong to do such a thing, is the utterly stupid, pathetic and ludicrous Ed Balls. And he is the one who assiduously dug the nation over many years into this great hole in the first place! But then, I suppose, he has never had a proper job either - a kindred spirit, perhaps?

This first appeared on Spear's.

Photograph: Getty Images

Stephen Hill writes for Spear's

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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