Can Danny Alexander get banks lending?

Information isn't enough, writes Carl Packman. Financial institutions need to know about their obligations.

A Resolution Foundation report from 2010 pointed out that despite the so-called boom period from 1997-2007, “incomes of the bottom three-fifths of the UK population failed to keep rise with rising prosperity”. So how were we able to eat? Easy: the dramatic rise of mainstream consumer credit. 

Credit cards and friendly banking institutions filled in where wages dropped. But then after the recession mainstream banking institutions became slightly risk averse. Credit wasn't so free-flowing, and wages still weren't rising. In fact real wages fell on average by 7 per cent in the two years from the end of 2009 (according to Stewart Lansley in a chapter of a new book called The Socialist Way). 

Soon the technical recession would be over, meaning the UK would enjoy positive growth, but the practical recession, where households under-served by banks were tightening their own budgets and feeling the full force of what the economic collapse had to offer, was just getting started. 

Now, Chief Secretary to the Treasury Danny Alexander will try to reverse this by announcing that banks, by January 2014, will have to reveal their lending data across 10,000 postcode areas. The Treasury has said that this move will encourage competition by helping smaller lenders to identify unmet need. It will also show which communities mainstream banking is neglecting. 

Disclosure of lending trends is to be celebrated, but it's only a first step. When we start to find patterns of unmet need only then can we make banking better by reminding those financial institutions of their obligations towards wider society, and this will address the lingering problem of the un- and under-banked

Fortunately we don't have to reinvent the wheel.The Community Reinvestment Act (CRA), was enacted by United States Congress in 1977 with the intention of encouraging depository institutions to help meet the credit needs of the communities in which they operated.

It was noted that though banking institutions were and are privately capitalised, they had and have an obligation to serve their local communities. What started as a way of disclosing lending details, much in the way that Danny Alexander wants to, it ended up being a way to highlight where banks were not meeting the credit needs of low and moderate income communities and permitted regulators to penalise lenders with weak records.

By 1984 three large lending institutions, First National Bank of Chicago, Harris Trust and Savings Bank, and the Northern Trust Company had all committed $153bn to reinvestment purposes, focusing on single family and multi-family housing and small business loans. Other larger institutions such as the Bank of America set aside $12bn annually to ensure consumer loans were being lent to lower income families. It took time, but the act proved highly successful.

It was not without its problems, however, which the UK can learn from. At the outset community groups who oversaw the enforcement of the CRA found fault with the way in which the regulators supervised banks. It was supposed that they were not rigorous enough and that they were not properly enforcing the new requirements effectively. 

That's why in 1989 Congress amended the act to require regulators to show their CRA evaluations. After this, from 1990-1992, only 939 banks (9.8 per cent) were deemed in need of improvement and 87 (0.9 per cent) substantially non-compliant out of 9,520 banks that were covered. 

The important message about the CRA, pointed out by Allen J Fishbein in his fifteen year evaluation of it, is the following:

“Despite the perception by many bankers that lending in low and moderate income areas is too risky and unprofitable, the experience over the last fifteen years has debunked these myths. Numerous examples of successful community reinvestment partnerships that have come into being since the CRA's enactment demonstrate that lending to the residents of older urban neighborhoods is both prudent and profitable for banking institutions.”

So what Danny Alexander should see to before his new measure is enacted next year is:

  • Make sure lending data disclosure rules are properly enacted;
  • Oblige regulators to publish their reports;
  • Call for a reinvestment action council, made up of people in local communities, that can publicly testify on banking institutions lending records (or better still, grassroots groups can set these councils up themselves); and
  • Set penalties for banks who do not invest sufficiently in local communities and use that money to sponsor local credit unions.

Moves towards disclosure are positive, so lets keep the momentum and make banks benefit communities, too.

Photograph: Getty Images

Carl Packman is a writer, researcher and blogger. He is the author of the forthcoming book Loan Sharks to be released by Searching Finance. He has previously published in the Guardian, Tribune Magazine, The Philosopher's Magazine and the International Journal for Žižek Studies.
 

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Why Angela Merkel's comments about the UK and US shouldn't be given too much weight

The Chancellor's comments are aimed at a domestic and European audience, and she won't be abandoning Anglo-German relationships just yet.

Angela Merkel’s latest remarks do not seem well-judged but should not be given undue significance. Speaking as part of a rally in Munich for her sister party, the CSU, the German Chancellor claimed “we Europeans must really take our own fate into our hands”.

The comments should be read in the context of September's German elections and Merkel’s determination to restrain the fortune of her main political rival, Martin Schulz – obviously a strong Europhile and a committed Trump critic. Sigmar Gabriel - previously seen as a candidate to lead the left-wing SPD - has for some time been pressing for Germany and Europe to have “enough self-confidence” to stand up to Trump. He called for a “self-confident position, not just on behalf of us Germans but all Europeans”. Merkel is in part responding to this pressure.

Her words were well received by her audience. The beer hall crowd erupted into sustained applause. But taking an implicit pop at Donald Trump is hardly likely to be a divisive tactic at such a gathering. Criticising the UK post-Brexit and the US under Trump is the sort of virtue signalling guaranteed to ensure a good clap.

It’s not clear that the comments represent that much of a new departure, as she herself has since claimed. She said something similar earlier this year. In January, after the publication of Donald Trump’s interview with The Times and Bild, she said that “we Europeans have our fate in our own hands”.

At one level what Merkel said is something of a truism: in two year’s time Britain will no longer be directly deciding the fate of the EU. In future no British Prime Minister will attend the European Council, and British MEPs will leave the Parliament at the next round of European elections in 2019. Yet Merkel’s words “we Europeans”, conflate Europe and the EU, something she has previously rejected. Back in July last year, at a joint press conference with Theresa May, she said: “the UK after all remains part of Europe, if not of the Union”.

At the same press conference, Merkel also confirmed that the EU and the UK would need to continue to work together. At that time she even used the first person plural to include Britain, saying “we have certain missions also to fulfil with the rest of the world” – there the ‘we’ meant Britain and the EU, now the 'we' excludes Britain.

Her comments surely also mark a frustration born of difficulties at the G7 summit over climate change, but Britain and Germany agreed at the meeting in Sicily on the Paris Accord. More broadly, the next few months will be crucial for determining the future relationship between Britain and the EU. There will be many difficult negotiations ahead.

Merkel is widely expected to remain the German Chancellor after this autumn’s election. As the single most powerful individual in the EU27, she is the most crucial person in determining future relations between the UK and the EU. Indeed, to some extent, it was her intransigence during Cameron’s ‘renegotiation’ which precipitated Brexit itself. She also needs to watch with care growing irritation across the EU at the (perceived) extent of German influence and control over the institutions and direction of the European project. Recent reports in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung which suggested a Merkel plan for Jens Weidmann of the Bundesbank to succeed Mario Draghi at the ECB have not gone down well across southern Europe. For those critics, the hands controlling the fate of Europe are Merkel’s.

Brexit remains a crucial challenge for the EU. How the issue is handled will shape the future of the Union. Many across Europe’s capitals are worried that Brussels risks driving Britain further away than Brexit will require; they are worried lest the Channel becomes metaphorically wider and Britain turns its back on the continent. On the UK side, Theresa May has accepted the EU, and particularly Merkel’s, insistence, that there can be no cherry picking, and therefore she has committed to leaving the single market as well as the EU. May has offered a “deep and special” partnership and a comprehensive free trading arrangement. Merkel should welcome Britain’s clarity. She must work with new French President Emmanuel Macron and others to lead the EU towards a new relationship with Britain – a close partnership which protects free trade, security and the other forms of cooperation which benefit all Europeans.

Henry Newman is the director of Open Europe. He tweets @henrynewman.

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