An early Christmas present for Britain's biggest banks: £34bn from taxpayers

We’re still giving big banks special privileges and they’re still too big to fail, writes Lydia Prieg.

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.

HSBC, one of the TBTF banks. Photograph: Getty Images

Lydia Prieg is a researcher at the new economics foundation.

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Sir Ivan Rogers: UK may wait until mid 2020s for an EU trade deal

The former ambassador to the EU had previously warned his colleagues about Brexit negotiatiors' "muddled thinking". 

Brits may have to wait until the mid 2020s for a free trade deal with the EU, UK's former ambassador to Brussels has warned.

Sir Ivan Rogers, who quit abruptly in January after warning of "muddled thinking", gave evidence to the Brexit select committee. 

He told MPs that his Brussels counterparts estimated a free-trade agreement might be negotiated by late 2020, and then it would take two more years to ratify it.

He said: "It may take until the mid 2020s until there is a ratified deep and fully comprehensive free-trade agreement."

The negotiations could be disrupted by the "rogue" European Parliament, he cautioned, as well as individual member states.

"Canada [the EU-Canada trade deal] not only nearly fell apart on Wallonia, it nearly fell apart on Romania and Bulgaria and visas," he said. 

Member states were calculating what the loss of the UK will mean to their budgets, he added - although many were celebrating the end of Britain's much-resented budget rebate. 

He also thought it unlikely the EU member states would agree to sectoral deals, such as one for financial services, if it meant jeopardising the unity of the EU negotiating position. 

In his resignation letter, which was leaked to the press, Rogers told his staff that "contrary to the beliefs of some, free trade does not just happen when it is not thwarted by authorities"and that he hoped they would continue "to challenge ill-founded arguments and muddled thinking".

Rogers said the comment was about "a generic argument on muddled thinking", which applied to "the system". He described how the small organisation he initially headed had been swamped by new arrivals from the newly-created Department for Exiting the EU.

The new recruits were enthusiastic, he said, but "they don't know an awful lot about the other end".

The UK needed to understand "we're up against a class act with the European Commission on negotiating", he warned. 

He said that if the UK reverted to World Trade Organisation rules - the option if it cannot agree a trade deal - it would enter a "legal void".

"No other major player trades with the EU on pure WTO terms," he said. "It's not true that the Americans do, or the Australians, or the Israelis or the Swiss."

The US has struck agreements "all the time" with the EU, he explained: "A very significant proportion of EU-US trade is actually governed by technical agreements."

Once the UK leaves the EU, it will be treated as a "third country", he added. This meant that the UK would need to get on a list to be allowed to export into the EU. Then individual firms would have to be listed, and their products scrutinised.

Rogers revealed he had debated "endlessly" with colleagues about the UK's relationship with the EU. "The core of the problem is not day one," he said. "The problem is day two, or day two thousand. What have you just captured your sovereignty and autonomy for?" Simply getting access to the single market would not mean a level playing field with EU companies, he explained.

He said: "The European Union is not a common sense agreement. It's a legal order."

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.