New lending rules for banks: what's really at stake is choice for borrowers

Forget banks' "competitive disadvantages".

“Give us a chance, mate”, seems to sum up the reaction from new banks, to a report by the Independent Commission on Banking which claims they must hold up to seven times as much capital against mortgage loans as their high street rivals.

The regulation behind this state of affairs, specifically the offering of lower capital requirements to those banks able to use their own databases to model risk on individual loans, is being criticised because only the biggest banks have the critical mass to earn the rewards.

Of course, the rationale that capital requirements wouldn’t be lowered unless regulators felt the database resources of those favoured were of sufficient scale to mitigate the risk of doing so sounds a bit dull in its affirmation that bigger, in some cases, really is better in banking.

More stirring, surely, to condemn the rules as stifling to the range of borrowing options available to consumers and small businesses at a competitive rate. Hence comments in the FT about a “glass ceiling” from Arbuthnot-owned Secure Trust Bank and “competitive disadvantage” from new bank Aldermore.

Once again, it’s the unstoppable force of “SMEs must be fed” smashing into the immovable object of “banks must be risk-averse”; a ringing collision that has underscored four years of regulatory discussion like a tireless blacksmith bashing away at the back of a press conference.

What’s at stake in this particular iteration of the discussion is the range of mortgage options borrowers have access to. Regulatory impact on this range is definitely not great for the competitive landscape, and certainly frustrating to smaller banks, but it’s by no means hobbling. Aldermore, for example, is well known for having grown at a blistering rate since its inception in 2009, and has had little difficulty picking up all the new business it has had an appetite for.

It’s more troubling, perhaps, to remember how the same issue of capital requirements can prove fatal to the big league.

“Increased regulatory requirements coupled with additional fiscal charges, the on-going economic malaise and other negative ‘head-winds’ require a serious response”, read an explanation sent to me by the press office of Netherlands-based banking group ING at the end of October last year.

What the statement was casually explaining was the decision by the group – based on pressure on its capital base caused by obligations both to Basel III regulation and the Dutch government – to kick a £1.5bn hole in the UK asset finance market by putting subsidiary ING Lease UK into run-off mode.

ING Lease was hugely profitable, and provided a lifeline for thousands of small businesses in need of equipment finance – but it didn’t matter. It was just too much of a drain on what was available.

Looking at the asset finance market now (where Aldermore is, out of interest, one of the banks racing to fill the gigantic gap left by ING), it’s clear to see how the demands of regulation really can have a brutal impact on the choices available to borrowers. 

Photograph: Getty Images

By day, Fred Crawley is editor of Credit Today and Insolvency Today. By night, he reviews graphic novels for the New Statesman.

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Martin McGuinness's long game: why a united Ireland is now increasingly likely

McGuinness died with his ultimate goal of a united Ireland arguably closer to realisation than at any other time since the island’s partition in 1921.

In late 2011 Martin McGuinness stood as Sinn Fein’s candidate in Ireland’s presidential election, raising all sorts of intriguing possibilities.

Raised in a tiny terraced house in the Bogside, Derry, he would have ended up living in a 92-room presidential mansion in Dublin had he won. A former IRA commander, he would have become supreme commander of Ireland’s defence forces. Once banned from Britain under the Prevention of Terrorism Acts, he would have received the credentials of the next British ambassador to Dublin. Were he invited to pay a state visit to London, a man who had spent much of his youth shooting or bombing British soldiers would have found himself inspecting a guard of honour at Buckingham Palace.

McGuinness would certainly have shaken the hands of the English team before the Ireland-England rugby match at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin every other year. “I’d have no problem with that,” he told me, grinning, as he campaigned in the border county of Cavan one day that autumn. Though a staunch republican, he enjoyed the “Protestant” sports of rugby and cricket, just as he supported Manchester United and enjoyed BBC nature programmes and Last of the Summer Wine. He wrote poetry and loved fly-fishing, too. Unlike Gerry Adams, the coldest of cold fish, McGuinness was hard to dislike – provided you overlooked his brutal past.

In the event, McGuinness, weighed down by IRA baggage, came a distant third in that election but his story was astonishing enough in any case. He was the 15-year-old butcher’s assistant who rose to become the IRA chief of staff, responsible for numerous atrocities including Lord Mountbatten’s assassination and the Warrenpoint slaughter of 18 British soldiers in 1979.

Then, in 1981, an IRA prisoner named Bobby Sands won a parliamentary by-election while starving himself to death in the Maze Prison. McGuinness and Adams saw the mileage in pursuing a united Ireland via the ballot box as well as the bullet. Their long and tortuous conversion to democratic politics led to the Good Friday accord of 1998, with McGuinness using his stature and “street cred” to keep the provisional’s hard men on board. He became Northern Ireland’s improbable new education minister, and later served as its deputy first minister for a decade.

His journey from paramilitary pariah to peacemaker was punctuated by any number of astounding tableaux – visits to Downing Street and Chequers; the forging of a relationship with Ian Paisley, his erstwhile arch-enemy, so strong that they were dubbed the “Chuckle Brothers”; his denunciation of dissident republican militants as “traitors to the island of Ireland”; talks at the White House with Presidents Clinton, George W Bush and Obama; and, most remarkable of all, two meetings with the Queen as well as a state banquet at Windsor Castle at which he joined in the toast to the British head of state.

Following his death on 21 March, McGuinness received tributes from London that would have been unthinkable 20 years ago. Tony Blair said peace would not have happened “without Martin’s leadership, courage and quiet insistence that the past should not define the future”. Theresa May praised his “essential and historic contribution to the extraordinary journey of Northern Ireland from conflict to peace”.

What few noted was that McGuinness died with his ultimate goal of a united Ireland arguably closer to realisation – albeit by peaceful methods – than at any other time since the island’s partition in 1921.

The Brexit vote last June has changed political dynamics in Northern Ireland. The province voted by 56 per cent to 44 in favour of remaining in the European Union, and may suffer badly when Britain leaves. It fears the return of a “hard border” with the Republic of Ireland, and could lose £330m in EU subsidies.

Dismay at the Brexit vote helped to boost Sinn Fein’s performance in this month’s Stormont Assembly elections. The party came within 1,200 votes of overtaking the Democratic Unionist Party, which not only campaigned for Leave but used a legal loophole to funnel £425,000 in undeclared funds to the broader UK campaign. For the first time in Northern Ireland’s history, the combined unionist parties no longer have an overall majority. “The notion of a perpetual unionist majority has been demolished,” Gerry Adams declared.

Other factors are also working in Sinn Fein’s favour. The party is refusing to enter a new power-sharing agreement at Stormont unless the DUP agrees to terms more favourable to the Irish nationalists. Sinn Fein will win if the DUP agrees to this, but it will also win if there is no deal – and London further inflames nationalist sentiment by imposing direct rule.

McGuinness’s recent replacement as Sinn Fein’s leader in Northern Ireland by Michelle O’Neill, a personable, socially progressive 40-year-old unsullied by the Troubles, marks another significant step in the party’s move towards respectability. As Patrick Maguire recently wrote in the New Statesman, “the age of the IRA old boys at the top is over”.

More broadly, Scottish independence would make the notion of Northern Ireland leaving the UK seem less radical. The Irish republic’s economic recovery and the decline of the Roman Catholic Church have rendered the idea of Irish unity a little less anathema to moderate unionists. And all the time, the province’s Protestant majority is shrinking: just 48 per cent of the population identified itself as Protestant in the 2011 census and 45 per cent Catholic.

The Good Friday Agreement provides for a referendum if a majority appears to favour Irish unity. Sinn Fein is beginning to agitate for exactly that. When Adams and McGuinness turned from violence to constitutional politics back in the 1980s they opted for the long game. Unfortunately for McGuinness, it proved too long for him to see Irish nationalism victorious, but it is no longer inconceivable that his four grown-up children might. 

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution