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.

Photo: Getty
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Who'll win the Richmond Park by-election?

There are three known unknowns that will decide the contest. 

It’s official: Zac Goldsmith has resigned as the Conservative MP for his Richmond Park seat, and has triggered a by-election there, where he will stand as an independent candidate.

Will it be a two-way or a three-way race?

The big question is whether the contest will be a three way fight between him, the Liberal Democrat candidate Sarah Olney, and an official Conservative candidate, or if CCHQ will decide to write the thing off and not field a candidate, making it a two-horse race between Goldsmith and Olney.

There are several Tory MPs who are of the opinion that, given that latitude to disagree on Heathrow has been granted to two Cabinet ministers, Boris Johnson and Justine Greening, similar leeway should be extended to Goldsmith. It’s win-win for Downing Street not to contest it, partly because doing so would put anti-Heathrow MPs, including Johnson and Greening, in an impossible position. Theresa May isn’t averse to putting Johnson in a tricky spot, but Greening was an early supporter of her leadership bid, so her interests come fairly high up the prime ministerial radar.

But the second reason not to contest it is that Goldsmith’s chances of re-election will be put in a serious jeopardy if there is a Tory candidate in the race. Everything from the local elections in May or the Liberal mini-revival since Brexit indicates that in a three-way race, they will start as heavy favourites, and if a three-way race results in a Liberal Democrat win there will be bloodletting.

Although people are talking up Goldsmith’s personal vote, I can find little hard evidence that he has one worth writing home about. His performance in the wards of Richmond Park in the mayoral election was actually a bit worse than the overall Tory performance in London.  (Boris Johnson didn’t have a London seat so we cannot compare like-for-like, but Sadiq Khan did four points better in Tooting than he did across London and significantly outperformed his general election performance there.) He did get a big swing from Liberal to Conservative at the general election, but big swings from the Liberal candidate to the Tory were a general feature of the night, and I’m not wholly convinced, given his performance in Richmond Park in 2016, that it can be laid at Goldsmith’s door.

If he wins, it’ll be because he was the Conservative candidate, rather than through any particular affection for him personally.

But will being the Conservative candidate be enough?

Although on paper, he inherits a healthy majority. So did Robert Courts, the new MP for Witney, and he saw it fall by 19 points, with the Liberal Democrats storming from fourth to second place. Although Goldsmith could, just about, survive a fall of that magnitude, there are reasons to believe it may be worse in Richmond Park than Witney.

The first is that we already know, not just from Witney but from local council by-elections, that the Liberal Democrats can hurt the Conservatives in affluent areas that backed a Remain vote. But in Witney, they barely squeezed the Labour vote, which went down by just over two points, or the Green vote, which went down by just under two points. If in Richmond Park, they can both damage the Tory vote thanks to Brexit and squeeze Labour and the Greens, they will win.

Goldsmith's dog-whistle campaign for the London mayoralty will particularly help squeeze the Labour vote, and thanks to Witney, the Liberal Democrats have a ready-made squeeze message. (In Witney, Green and Labour votes would have been more than enough to elect Liz Leffman, the Liberal candidate.)

But their good performance in Witney and Goldsmith's mayoral result may not be enough on their own.  Ultimately, the contest will come down to the big question that will decide not just the outcome in Richmond Park but the future of the Liberal Democrats.

Have the voters forgiven the Liberal Democrats for going into coalition?

We know that Brexit can help the Liberal Democrats at the direct expense of the Conservatives. What we don’t know is if Brexit is enough to convince 6,000 Labour voters in Bath to vote tactically to get Ben Howlett out in exchange for a Lib Dem, or for 7,500 Labour voters to back a Liberal candidate in Hazel Grove to defeat William Wragg.

One of the reasons why the Liberal Democrats lost votes directly to the Tories in 2015 was fear: of uncertainty and chaos under an Ed Miliband government propped up by the SNP. That factor is less live in a by-election but has been further weakened due to the fact that Brexit – at least as far as Remain-backing Conservatives are concerned – has brought just as much uncertainty and chaos as Miliband and the SNP ever would have.

But the other reason was disgust at the Liberal Democrats for going into coalition with the Conservatives. If they can’t win over enough votes from the parties of the left, we’ll know that the party still has a way to come before we can truly speak of a Liberal revival. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.