British banks are still too big to fail. Not only does that have terrifying implications for UK taxpayers in the event of another financial crisis, it also has a distortionary effect on the economy. Why? Because being so big that the government can’t afford for you to go bust has financial benefits, even for banks that never received a bailout.
For instance, once the government implicitly guarantees the debt of banks, the cost of borrowing goes down, as creditors are taking on less risk that they won't get their loan repaid. This reduction can be measured, and its value is the too-big-to-fail (TBTF) subsidy.
Today the new economics foundation has calculated the benefits of the subsidy for 2011 and found they totalled £34bn for the big four banks combined. Barclays, Lloyds, RBS, and HSBC enjoyed subsidies of £10bn, £9bn, £11bn and £5bn respectively. Their competitors didn't get this advantage, and neither do firms operating outside the banking industry.
There are a number of reasons why we should be concerned about this subsidy:
- It’s unfair: banks do not pass on this benefit to their customers, it simply inflates their profits.
- It’s anticompetitive: new and smaller banks do not benefit from the subsidy, and so find it extremely difficult to compete with the big four.
- It encourages banks to take on more risk: they get to pocket any upside from risky trades, but know that taxpayers will be there to pick up the tab if everything goes wrong.
- It creates a vicious circle: subsidies incentivise banks to get even bigger, concentrating power within the banking sector and creating even larger TBTF institutions that enjoy even higher subsidies and further weaken competition.
But the key point of the subsidy is that the markets are reflecting what politicians frequently deny: the fact that taxpayers may once again be called upon to bail out the banks – exactly what we were promised wouldn’t happen.
The government’s primary prescription for tackling the TBTF problem is to ring-fence retail banking away from investment banking activities. But ring-fencing will only reduce, not eliminate, the TBTF subsidy.
Let’s not forget that Lehman Brothers was an investment bank that had no retail banking component; yet its collapse sent shockwaves around the globe. In the UK we have individual banks with assets greater than UK GDP. Given this, even outright separation between retail and investment banking – which is not what we are getting under current proposals – would still leave lingering TBTF problems.
The Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards is releasing its recommendations to the government on Friday and has been looking at the ring-fencing proposals in depth. Let us hope that the Commission acknowledges the short-comings of the current plans, and pushes the government to at least examine more radical proposals, such as capping the size of banks.
2012 has made it clear that for all the hustle and bustle on banking reform, fundamental flaws in the system remain completely unaddressed. The Financial Services Act and the Banking Reform Bill fall far short of producing the safe and useful banking system that British businesses, customers and taxpayers deserve.