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.

Getty Images.
Show Hide image

Theresa May gambles that the EU will blink first

In her Brexit speech, the Prime Minister raised the stakes by declaring that "no deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain". 

It was at Lancaster House in 1988 that Margaret Thatcher delivered a speech heralding British membership of the single market. Twenty eight years later, at the same venue, Theresa May confirmed the UK’s retreat.

As had been clear ever since her Brexit speech in October, May recognises that her primary objective of controlling immigration is incompatible with continued membership. Inside the single market, she noted, the UK would still have to accept free movement and the rulings of the European Court of Justice (ECJ). “It would to all intents and purposes mean not leaving the EU at all,” May surmised.

The Prime Minister also confirmed, as anticipated, that the UK would no longer remain a full member of the Customs Union. “We want to get out into the wider world, to trade and do business all around the globe,” May declared.

But she also recognises that a substantial proportion of this will continue to be with Europe (the destination for half of current UK exports). Her ambition, she declared, was “a new, comprehensive, bold and ambitious Free Trade Agreement”. May added that she wanted either “a completely new customs agreement” or associate membership of the Customs Union.

Though the Prime Minister has long ruled out free movement and the acceptance of ECJ jurisdiction, she has not pledged to end budget contributions. But in her speech she diminished this potential concession, warning that the days when the UK provided “vast” amounts were over.

Having signalled what she wanted to take from the EU, what did May have to give? She struck a notably more conciliatory tone, emphasising that it was “overwhelmingly and compellingly in Britain’s national interest that the EU should succeed”. The day after Donald Trump gleefully predicted the institution’s demise, her words were in marked contrast to those of the president-elect.

In an age of Isis and Russian revanchism, May also emphasised the UK’s “unique intelligence capabilities” which would help to keep “people in Europe safe from terrorism”. She added: “At a time when there is growing concern about European security, Britain’s servicemen and women, based in European countries including Estonia, Poland and Romania, will continue to do their duty. We are leaving the European Union, but we are not leaving Europe.”

The EU’s defining political objective is to ensure that others do not follow the UK out of the club. The rise of nationalists such as Marine Le Pen, Alternative für Deutschland and the Dutch Partij voor de Vrijheid (Party for Freedom) has made Europe less, rather than more, amenable to British demands. In this hazardous climate, the UK cannot be seen to enjoy a cost-free Brexit.

May’s wager is that the price will not be excessive. She warned that a “punitive deal that punishes Britain” would be “an act of calamitous self-harm”. But as Greece can testify, economic self-interest does not always trump politics.

Unlike David Cameron, however, who merely stated that he “ruled nothing out” during his EU renegotiation, May signalled that she was prepared to walk away. “No deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain,” she declared. Such an outcome would prove economically calamitous for the UK, forcing it to accept punitively high tariffs. But in this face-off, May’s gamble is that Brussels will blink first.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.