Some thoughts to bear in mind before digging a grave for the Funding for Lending Scheme

FFS, FLS!

Six months into the Bank of England’s Funding for Lending Scheme (FLS), and we seem eager to anticipate its demise, like wolves padding after a limping bison.

The scheme, which offers banks funding at a discounted rate of interest so long as those lower rates are passed on to customers, has so far seen £13.8bn drawn from the Bank’s pot of £100bn, of which £9.5bn was accessed in last year’s final quarter.

The problem was, Q4 also saw overall bank lending drop by £2.4bn compared to the previous three months.

Oh those naughty, naughty banks. Lloyds Banking Group, RBS and Santander cut their lending totals by a combined £7.6bn during the quarter, despite drawing down £4.8bn between them through the scheme, while Barclays, despite growing lending during Q4, did so by only £5.7bn while drawing down £6bn.  

Of course, if banking was simple, we’d expect lenders to have squirted money into the hands of consumers and small business owners with wild abandon, in exactly the quantities drawn down.

But then, despite all our desires to the contrary, banking isn’t particularly simple. Here’s some thoughts to bear in mind before digging the FLS’ grave early.

First, as the Bank has already pointed out, the fourth quarter is never the strongest time for lending in the first place, and we would have been worse off without the boost of the FLS

Second, we shouldn’t forget the wider context, of major banks being mandated to shore up their capital bases in order to avoid being as exposed to ruin as they were in 2008. Unfortunately, the main way for them to do this is by cutting back on lending.

Third, there is a time delay on the reduced cost of funding offered by the scheme trickling through to customers, as it takes time for loans to make it through from application to payout. This has now been stated by the Bank often enough to feel a tiny bit “dog ate my homework”, but is still a fair point.

All things considered, I’m surprised people’s expectations were so high. Even before launching the scheme, the Bank predicted that we’d have to get some way into 2013 before we saw the real benefits of the scheme.

And before we expect miracles, let’s remember the fundamental obstacle facing the scheme: it can’t do anything at all about the cost of risk, i.e. what banks have to put aside in contingency for loan defaults.

Very small businesses, very new ones, and those in sectors considered by lenders to be on the ropes, will still have great difficulty being touched with a bargepole while the discounted funding can be channelled into lending to safe bets.

And who can blame the banks? We’ve spent five years pillorying them over subprime lending, so is it really a surprise they are so risk averse now? By demanding that banks pile more money into the SME sector, we are explicitly asking them to take greater risks.

So let’s give Threadneedle Street the benefit of the doubt and have this whole conversation again after Q1. If the scheme isn’t working, replacement isn’t out of the question - after all, the FLS was created to replace the underwhelming National Loan Guarantee scheme, which was quietly phased out after only six disappointing months.  

But let’s also revise down our expectations of what will constitute success for the FLS. If used correctly it will be able to soothe the symptoms of a deeply troubled system, but it’s never going to touch the roots of the problem.

Bank of England. 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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Next month's Spanish election is on a knife edge

After a December election failed to produce a clear result, Spain goes to the polls again a month today - but the result will likely be tight again.

In December 2015, Spain had the general election Britain was predicted to have had last year: the two biggest parties unable to form a majority, with two smaller parties playing kingmaker. In the United Kingdom, the Liberal Democrats did so much worse than predicted that the Tories were able to scrape a majority from their losses. In Spain, however, the two older, established parties performed so badly, they ended up with just 50 per cent of the national vote between them. The bulk of the remaining votes went, primarily, to two parties contesting a Spanish general election for the first time: Podemos and Ciudadanos.

The two largest parties falling from 75 per cent of the national vote share to 50 per cent was a political earthquake, but one that was expected. Over the past few years, a series of corruption scandals saw support from traditional, unionist voters for the establishment dwindle. Before the results came in, most of the Spanish media had predicted that a two-party coalition would be necessary to reach the 176 Deputies needed for a majority. However, neither the two major right-leaning nor left-leaning parties were able meet the threshold together. This was in part due to how close the final result was, but also because of 26 Deputies being split between five small, regional parties. Why a coalition wasn’t formed with some of these smaller parties needs a bit of backstory.

Of the two biggest, and most established, parties, the largest at the last election was the incumbent Partido Popular (PP). In English, their name means The People’s Party. The irony here is that a former minister in the regime of Spanish dictator, Francisco Franco, founded the PP’s original incarnation, the People’s Alliance. The dictatorship lasted from 1936 to 1975, so there still are plenty of people who remember life under its oppression.

The PP’s closest equivalent in Britain would be the Tories. Both represent the interests of the establishment, oppose regional devolution, and are deeply ideologically conservative.

I spent a couple of years living in Spain, specifically in Tenerife and Pamplona. In both the Canary Islands and Navarre, there is a strong local identity separate to that of Spain; in Navarre, there is even a language, Basque, which is completely unrelated to Spanish. What these two regions, at opposite ends of the country, also have in common, is large numbers of people with a deeply rooted hatred of the Franco dictatorship and its descendants. While there are plenty of politically conservative voters, they refuse to vote for a party with such strong links to the dictatorship.

Nonetheless, the PP won the most Deputies in the December election, which afforded them the first opportunity to form a government. Their most obvious coalition partner was the Ciudadanos party (Cs). In English, their name translates to Citizens. They were founded a decade ago in reaction to Catalan separatism, which they perceived as anti-Spanish, and three years ago they began to organise nationally. The Cs found masses of support amongst liberal and conservative voters who opposed further devolution, but wouldn’t vote for the PP.

It’s hard to find a British equivalent, but the closest would be the Ulster Unionist Party, if they had more Liberal Democrat policies and decided to field candidates in the rest of the UK, appealing to those who oppose Scottish and Welsh nationalism.

I worked for an environmental charity in Tenerife and in primary schools in Pamplona. Neither of these jobs was political in the government and elections sense, and yet co-workers and neighbours discussed the struggle between regional and national identity every day. After four decades of dictatorship, support for devolution was inevitable. But after years of nationalist and seperatist parties emphasising the divisions between their communities and the rest of Spain, perhaps the rise of a post-nationalist party should have been expected.

The Cs’ central tenet of anti-nationalism quickly became as popular in the many Spanish regions with separatist parties as it was in their native Catalonia. However, they only won 40 Deputies, which, when added to the PP’s 123, fell 13 short of a majority.

The PP’s main rival for 40 years has been the Partido Socialista Obrero Español (PSOE). Its name translates as The Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party, and is, unsurprisingly, a party founded by socialists that looks a lot like the UK Labour Party. In 2016, and for at least the past decade prior, the PSOE has been far more New Labour than Labour. Nonetheless, the PSOE weathered the rise of two insurgent parties better than the PP, but still came second, with 90 seats.

The PSOE’s most obvious choice for a coalition partner was the left-wing Podemos (in English: We Can). Podemos, a coalition of left-wing parties, is best described as an anti-austerity, anti-corruption party: essentially, Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour. They have since formed a new alliance with other left-wing parties, becoming Unidos Podemos (UP), which translates as United We Can. UP is a larger coalition, combining communists, greens, and socialist regional parties who want independence or greater autonomy. Together, they won 71 seats, which, when added to the PSOE’s 90, left them 15 short.

This meant that the larger parties had to consider involving some of the 26 Deputies belonging to the five regional parties. The problem they encountered was that these five small parties were divided between conservatives and socialists, as well as unionists and nationalists.

On a purely left to right scale, there were 11 socialists, which meant that even if they joined with the centre-left PSOE and left-wing UP, they would still have fallen short of a majority. This left 15 conservative Deputies, which would have given a coalition of the conservative PP and centre-right C’s two more than needed for a majority. What stopped this before it could begin were the PP and C’s anti-separatist ideologies. So, while they may have agreed on just about every topic, the subject of devolution was too divisive for a conservative coalition to have been possible.

So, you might wonder, if the left didn’t have the numbers and the right did but couldn’t work together, were there any other options? Of course there were! Any three of the four biggest parties could have formed a coalition with a large majority, but, as you should expect by now, negotiations failed.

Put simply, the historic divide between the PP and PSOE made their coalition as likely as a Tory-Labour one. The Cs, positioning themselves as centrists, seemed willing to work with either of the bigger, older parties, but refused to form a coalition with UP, due to the latter’s support for a Catalan independence referendum. The PP refused to work with UP for the same reason, in addition to their massive political differences.

So, after negotiations failed, a second election had to be called so the electorate would solve the problem for the politicians. Any hope the two older parties had of the insurgent Cs or UP collapsing, and their votes being swept up by the old guard look increasingly unlikely.

Recent polls show UP has edged above the PSOE, and is now in second place. The Cs are also rising, with the PP maintaining its numbers and PSOE slightly slipping a percentage or two into third place. The gained votes are coming from the smaller parties, particularly Catalan nationalists, who have split into two parties and stand to lose seats as a result.

Next month’s result, however, may not be all that different to December’s, given Spain’s use of proportional representation to elect its Deputies. The current small swing of a few per cent won’t drastically alter the end result in the same way it would in Britain. However, all that’s needed to break the deadlock is a very small shift towards any of the 4 big players.

Based on recent polls, I predict the election next month will produce a coalition, albeit one with a razor thin majority. At the moment, it feels like the left and the right have equal chance to scrape victory, but both scenarios would result in governments that depend upon compromise, not just within their coalitions, but with their oppositions too. This is something Spanish parties have yet to master, and, until they do, Spain won’t have a government for the foreseeable future.

The effects this will have on the European Union remain to be seen, as whoever leads the next Spanish government as their Prime Minister, is currently anyone’s guess.