The central bankers' central bank: a new banking crisis?

But should the BIS be listened to at all?

The Bank for International Settlements – the Swiss-based multinational institution which is known as "the central bankers' central bank" – has issued its 83rd annual report, which warns of the potentially massive implications of a spike in bond yields.

BIS argues that an increase in average yields of 300 basis points – 3 percentage points – would lead to losses on US Treasury bills of over $1trn, and it warns that such a big move can happen "relatively fast":

Someone must ultimately hold the interest rate risk. As foreign and domestic banks would be among those experiencing the losses, interest rate increases pose risks to the stability of the financial system if not executed with great care.

The warning fits into a narrative which began last week: that the US Federal Reserve's decision to "taper" its quantitative easing program will end the period of artificially low bond yields. There has certainly been a spike in yields: a 10-year UK gilt yields 2.48 per cent, compared to 1.90 a month ago, while 10-year US is up to 2.58 per cent from 2.01.

But the BIS has its scope set wider. The rises we've seen this month are merely the difference between "low" and "very low" cost of debt for solvent sovereigns; it doesn't yet change the overall story of the last thirty years, which is continued decline in yields.

Instead, as the Economist's Ryan Avent writes, to understand BIS's advice, we have to remember its background as an institution where the central bankers go to tell each other the myths on which their self-esteem rests. And key amongst those myths is the argument that interest rates – the key driver of monetary policy in most open economies – have been too low in recent years.

If interest rates have been too low, then bond yields are doubly depressed, first by QE and second by the low rates. It's easy to see how that belief spirals into warning of an inevitable spike in yields.

But, Avent points out, rates aren't low (or rather, too low) when they are low in absolute terms. Instead, we have to look at where they are compared to where they should be to encourage full employment. Given the deeply depressed economies in the developed world, it is almost certainly the case that interest rates at the level the Bank of England's 0.5 per cent are too high: that, rather than running the risk of causing the economy to overheat, they are dampening investment and growth.

There's a similar infestation of central-bank-ese in the BIS's treatment of sovereign debt, which Avent summarises as "Something something fiscal policy":

Central bankers have strong views on what governments ought to be doing with their budgets, many of which make most sense when given the least scrutiny. The BIS knows what it wants to say: that fiscal consolidation is almost universally necessary and the only real question is how to pursue it. Picking a path toward this argument that doesn't immediately cave in under the weight of self-contradiction proves to be a difficult task.

Paul Krugman is even harsher, writing that:

Part of what makes the report so awesome is the way that it trots out every discredited argument for austerity, with not a hint of acknowledgement that these arguments have been researched and refuted at length.

The BIS pulls the classic two-step of looking at problems from within the Eurozone – where sovereigns without central banks have seen massive explosions in debt and borrowing costs – and extrapolating that to non-Eurozone nations. In short, it's not moved on from the economic "debate" which occurred in the spring of 2010, over whether Britain was the next Greece. (In case you've missed this one: it's not.) But even within the Eurozone, the BIS analysis is problematic, demanding massive deleveraging in countries which are already struggling to cut what spending they can. It fails to acknowledge the first rule of Eurozone budgets: if you are trying to cut debt/GDP ratios, it's more important in the current economic climate to keep growth up than it is to cut government spending.

BIS goes one step still, though. It calls for mass private sector deleveraging at the same time, inveighing against general balance sheet overhang. Quite apart from the fact that it's tricky for all sectors of the economy to deleverage at the same time – someone has to buy the debt – there's that whole paradox of thrift thing which we've known about for a little over three hundred years.

"If the world is lucky," writes Avent, "central bankers will discount the recommendations of the BIS." If the world was lucky, there'd have been better recommendations in the first place.

A woman cycles past the Bank for International Settlements in Basel, Switzerland.

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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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