Why you should care about the student loan fire-sale, even if you aren't a student

Danny Alexander is out to get the worst return for your investment he can.

The announcement that the student loan portfolio is going to privatised has, rightly, sparked a huge response. It is a terrible idea, which will come back to haunt future governments and current graduates.

But the worst of it isn't the effects on graduates themselves – at least, not the direct ones.

The sale of the loan portfolio doesn't mean an immediate move to a US-style system of student debt. As far as we can tell (the proposals will need to be much more fleshed out between now and 2015, when the sale is planned to happen), the debt collection will continue to happen through HMRC, and at the same rates and with mostly the same rules as now. That means it will still be wiped out when a graduate gets old enough, it will still be paid back at 8 per cent of earnings above a certain threshold, and it will still not really count as debt you should be afraid of.

But there are two key problems which graduates might face as a result of the sale.

The first is the much-feared "sweetener", a change which the government might make to the student loan deal to make it a better proposition for commercial investors. As suggested in the secret Project Hero report, uncovered by the Guardian earlier this month, one possible sweetener is to remove the cap on interest rates, thus massively increasing the potential amount graduates would have to repay. The Project Hero suggestions are that this should be retroactive, affecting every graduate with outstanding debt.

Hopefully, that plan won't be put into action. Vince Cable, the business secretary, says the suggestions has been "ruled out categorically". A promise like that doesn't carry much weight from a Liberal Democrat, sadly, but maybe this time it's one they'll actually keep.

The reason to doubt them is the second thing that graduates should be wary of: commercial pressure.

The student loan contracts are mutable enough that nearly any change can be made to them. And once they have been sold, there will be a private company with a multi-billion pound investment in maximising their return from them. Any model of government power will tell you that a policy which has concentrated benefits and dispersed costs is one which gets heavily lobbied for, and this will no different. Expect lobbying for the debt to become a lot more like it is in the US: real rates of interest, and rules which make it impossible to default on, or not pay back, student loans.

When the sale happens, in other words, the fight isn't over. It's only just begun.

And even if the private lenders who buy the debt don't act on it, there's something else to consider: it removes a key commonality of interest between the Government and graduates.

While the government owns student debt, it is in its financial interest to ensure that graduates do well. If it leaves the younger generation to languish in unemployment, it won't get its investment back. That's no longer true.

But for all the risk to students, the bigger reason why the sale of student debt is stupid is because it's bad for the country.

It is, in essence, borrowing. The government is giving up income in the future to gain a lump sum now. And that's fine! It's the sort of thing which it should have done three years ago, not two years in the future, but whatever: it's nice to see that they're finally, grudgingly, painfully slowly accepting that the foundations of their entire economic structure are riddled with holes.

Except they're not. Because in a desperate effort to make it look like they aren't completely chucking out every belief they pretended to have, the Government isn't actually going to borrow the money. Which means that rather than taking advantage of what were, until last month, some the lowest bond yields Britain had ever seen, and what remains an astonishingly low cost of borrowing… we aren't. Instead, our government is twisting itself in contortions, discussing student loan debt as though it's a pile of newspapers sat at the back of the treasury, which they mustn't be "compulsive hoarders" of, in order to sell at a discount an asset which is significantly more valuable in public hands than private. It's politically driven economic illiteracy.

And so to encourage the purchase, to eke some cash out of this shoddy deal, the government is likely to implement a "synthetic hedge". Basically, it lets them sell the student loan debt as though they'd implemented the changes to repayment rules, without actually doing it. They promise to pay the purchaser a sum equivalent to what they'd be getting if the rules had been changed, and then kick the question of how to actually pay that sum to a future government. It's cowardice dressed up as a business plan, and it's coming here in 2015.

Photomontage: Getty Images/Alex Hern

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