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.

Photo: Getty Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.