The Fed was just trying to keep a low profile

Last Wednesday’s FOMC statement was a classic of the genre, but it won't stop the New Year’s renewed debate over government funding and the debt ceiling from hovering into view.

If nothing else, I think we’d all agree that drafting the post-FOMC statement must surely be a huge lexicographical challenge, with tens of thousands of teenage scribblers, traders, investors and politicians crawling over every word to try and discover significance where, in many cases, none may exist. In this sense, last Wednesday’s statement was a little classic of the genre.

Some were surprised to see the pace of expansion of economic activity still described as "moderate" rather than "modest". True, the housing sector had now "slowed somewhat", whereas last time it had "been strengthening", there was even debate over whether the inclusion of the word "some" in the FOMC’s assessment of the labour market as having "shown some further improvement" was a downgrade.

The truth is, this was just a holding statement, and we should watch their lips - any change in policy will be data dependent. They dropped the previous comment which suggested that tighter financial conditions could damage the recovery-hardly surprising since 10-year yields had virtually doubled from the Spring's low of 1.6 per cent to 3.0 per cent just before the September meeting, but they have since dropped to 2.5 per cent and the stock market has resumed its climb.

It’s also possible that the FOMC was keen to sound tough in advance of the Senate confirmation hearings on Janet Yellen’s candidacy as Fed Chairman. Not all FOMC members may like her dovish stance, but she’s one of theirs, and they certainly don’t want to encourage the sort of uncomfortable scrutiny of the Fed advocated by Senator Rand Paul and his father. Hence their assiduous and conspicuous failure to suggest tapering would be further delayed.

The week of 4th November will be key, recent data having been somewhat contradictory, with weak consumer confidence, but a rather robust Manufacturing ISM Survey; the former may portend a weak non-Manufacturing ISM report - much the larger part of the economy, and then of course, the most important data of the week, October's employment report, due on the 8th. We may see some asymmetry in market reaction here again, with a strong report being dismissed as distorted by the shutdown, whereas weak data would support a further delay in tapering.

It is also certainly the case that by the time of the next FOMC meeting in December the Fed will have little, if any, further clarity on the economy’s health and the New Year’s renewed debate over government funding and the debt ceiling will be hovering into view.

Traders react to the Federal Open Market Committee report, 18 September 2013. Photograph: Getty Images.

Chairman of  Saxo Capital Markets Board

An Honours Graduate from Oxford University, Nick Beecroft has over 30 years of international trading experience within the financial industry, including senior Global Markets roles at Standard Chartered Bank, Deutsche Bank and Citibank. Nick was a member of the Bank of England's Foreign Exchange Joint Standing Committee.

More of his work can be found here.

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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