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.
 

A woman in an Indian surrogacy hostel. Photo: Getty
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The Handmaid's Tale has already come true - just not for white western women

Why, if the fate of the fictional Offred is so horrifying, is the fate of real-life women in surrogacy hostels causing so little outrage?

When anti-choice Republican Justin Humphrey referred to pregnant women as “hosts”, I found myself wondering, not for the first time, whether everything had got “a bit Handmaid’s Tale.”

I’m not alone in having had this thought. Since Donald Trump won the US election, sales of Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel have spiked and we’ve seen a plethora of articles telling us how “eerily relevant [it] is to our current political landscape.” In an interview during Cuba’s international book fair, Atwood herself said she believes the recent “bubbling up” of regressive attitudes towards women is linked to The Handmaid’s Tale’s current success: “It’s back to 17th-century puritan values of New England at that time in which women were pretty low on the hierarchy … you can think you are being a liberal democracy but then — bang — you’re Hitler’s Germany.”

Scary stuff. Still, at least most present-day readers can reassure themselves that they’ve not arrived in the Republic of Gilead just yet.

For those who have not yet read it, The Handmaid’s Tale tells the story of Offred, who lives under a theocratic dictatorship in what used to be the United States of America. White, middle-class and college-educated, Offred once enjoyed a significant degree of privilege, but now belongs to a class of women whose sole purpose is to gestate offspring for high-status couples. Much of the shock value of the story comes from the contrast between Offred’s former life – in which she had a name of her own - and her present-day existence. If this can happen to someone like Offred, it is suggested, surely it can happen to any of us.

Or so that is what a white, middle-class reader – a reader like me – might tell herself. Recently I’ve started to wonder whether that’s strictly true. It can be reassuring to stick to one narrative, one type of baddie – the religious puritan, the pussy-grabbing president, the woman-hating Right. But what if it’s more complicated than that? There’s something about the current wallowing in Atwood’s vision that strikes me as, if not self-indulgent, then at the very least naive.

In 1985, the same year The Handmaid’s Tale was published, Gina Correa published The Mother Machine. This was not a work of dystopian fiction, but a feminist analysis of the impact of reproductive technologies on women’s liberties. Even so, there are times when it sounds positively Handmaid’s Tale-esque:

“Once embryo transfer technology is developed, the surrogate industry could look for breeders – not only in poverty-stricken parts of the United States, but in the Third World as well. There, perhaps, one tenth of the current fee could be paid to women”

Perhaps, at the time her book was written, Correa’s imaginings sounded every bit as dark and outlandish as Atwood’s. And yet she has been proved right. Today there are parts of the world in which renting the womb of a poor woman is indeed ten times cheaper than in the US. The choice of wealthy white couples to implant embryos in the bodies of brown women is seen, not as colonialist exploitation, but as a neutral consumer choice. I can’t help wondering why, if the fate of the fictional Offred is so horrifying to western feminists today, the fate of real-life women in surrogacy hostels is causing so little outrage.

I suppose the main argument of these feminists would be that real-life women choose to be surrogates, whereas Offred does not. But is the distinction so clear? If Offred refuses to work as a handmaid, she may be sent to the Colonies, where life expectancy is short. Yet even this is a choice of sorts. As she herself notes, “nothing is going on here that I haven't signed up for. There wasn't a lot of choice but there was some, and this is what I chose.” In the real world, grinding poverty drives women of colour to gestate the babies of the wealthy. As one Indian surrogate tells interviewer Seemi Pasha, “Why would I be a surrogate for someone else if I don't need the money? Why would I make myself go through this pain?"

None of the feminists who expressed shock at Justin Humphrey referring to pregnant women as “hosts” have, as far as I am aware, expressed the same horror at surrogacy agencies using the exact same term. As Dorothy Roberts wrote in Killing The Black Body, the notion of reproductive liberty remains “primarily concerned with the interests of white, middle-class women” and  “focused on the right to abortion.” The right not just to decide if and when to have children, but to have children of one’s own – something women of colour have frequently been denied – can be of little interest of those who have never really feared losing it (hence the cloth-eared response of many white women to Beyoncè’s Grammy performance).

As Roberts notes, “reproductive liberty must encompass more than the protection of an individual woman’s choice to end her pregnancy”:

“It must encompass the full range of procreative activities, including the ability to bear a child, and it must acknowledge that we make reproductive decisions within a social context, including inequalities of wealth and power. Reproductive freedom is a matter of social justice, not individual choice.”

It’s easy to mock the pretensions to pro-life piety of a pussy-grabbing president. But what about the white liberal left’s insistence that criticising the global trade in sexual and gestational services is “telling a women what she can and cannot do with her body” and as such is illiberal and wrong? “Individual choice” can be every bit as much of a false, woman-hating god as the one worshipped by the likes of Humphrey and Trump.

One of the most distressing scenes in The Handmaid’s Tale takes place when Janine/Ofwarren has just given birth and has her child taken from her:

“We stand between Janine and the bed, so she won’t have to see this. Someone gives her a drink of grape juice. I hope there’s wine in it, she’s still having the pains, for the afterbirth, she’s crying helplessly, burnt-out miserable tears.”

Right now there are women suffering in just this way. Only they’re probably not white, nor middle-class, nor sitting in a twee white bedroom in Middle America. Oh, and they’re not fictional, either.

The dystopian predictions of 1985 have already come true. It’s just that women like me didn’t notice until we started to be called “hosts”, too.

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.