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
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Who will win the Copeland by-election?

Labour face a tricky task in holding onto the seat. 

What’s the Copeland by-election about? That’s the question that will decide who wins it.

The Conservatives want it to be about the nuclear industry, which is the seat’s biggest employer, and Jeremy Corbyn’s long history of opposition to nuclear power.

Labour want it to be about the difficulties of the NHS in Cumbria in general and the future of West Cumberland Hospital in particular.

Who’s winning? Neither party is confident of victory but both sides think it will be close. That Theresa May has visited is a sign of the confidence in Conservative headquarters that, win or lose, Labour will not increase its majority from the six-point lead it held over the Conservatives in May 2015. (It’s always more instructive to talk about vote share rather than raw numbers, in by-elections in particular.)

But her visit may have been counterproductive. Yes, she is the most popular politician in Britain according to all the polls, but in visiting she has added fuel to the fire of Labour’s message that the Conservatives are keeping an anxious eye on the outcome.

Labour strategists feared that “the oxygen” would come out of the campaign if May used her visit to offer a guarantee about West Cumberland Hospital. Instead, she refused to answer, merely hyping up the issue further.

The party is nervous that opposition to Corbyn is going to supress turnout among their voters, but on the Conservative side, there is considerable irritation that May’s visit has made their task harder, too.

Voters know the difference between a by-election and a general election and my hunch is that people will get they can have a free hit on the health question without risking the future of the nuclear factory. That Corbyn has U-Turned on nuclear power only helps.

I said last week that if I knew what the local paper would look like between now and then I would be able to call the outcome. Today the West Cumbria News & Star leads with Downing Street’s refusal to answer questions about West Cumberland Hospital. All the signs favour Labour. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.