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.

Getty Images.
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Why relations between Theresa May and Philip Hammond became tense so quickly

The political imperative of controlling immigration is clashing with the economic imperative of maintaining growth. 

There is no relationship in government more important than that between the prime minister and the chancellor. When Theresa May entered No.10, she chose Philip Hammond, a dependable technocrat and long-standing ally who she had known since Oxford University. 

But relations between the pair have proved far tenser than anticipated. On Wednesday, Hammond suggested that students could be excluded from the net migration target. "We are having conversations within government about the most appropriate way to record and address net migration," he told the Treasury select committee. The Chancellor, in common with many others, has long regarded the inclusion of students as an obstacle to growth. 

The following day Hammond was publicly rebuked by No.10. "Our position on who is included in the figures has not changed, and we are categorically not reviewing whether or not students are included," a spokesman said (as I reported in advance, May believes that the public would see this move as "a fix"). 

This is not the only clash in May's first 100 days. Hammond was aggrieved by the Prime Minister's criticisms of loose monetary policy (which forced No.10 to state that it "respects the independence of the Bank of England") and is resisting tougher controls on foreign takeovers. The Chancellor has also struck a more sceptical tone on the UK's economic prospects. "It is clear to me that the British people did not vote on June 23 to become poorer," he declared in his conference speech, a signal that national prosperity must come before control of immigration. 

May and Hammond's relationship was never going to match the remarkable bond between David Cameron and George Osborne. But should relations worsen it risks becoming closer to that beween Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling. Like Hammond, Darling entered the Treasury as a calm technocrat and an ally of the PM. But the extraordinary circumstances of the financial crisis transformed him into a far more assertive figure.

In times of turmoil, there is an inevitable clash between political and economic priorities. As prime minister, Brown resisted talk of cuts for fear of the electoral consequences. But as chancellor, Darling was more concerned with the bottom line (backing a rise in VAT). By analogy, May is focused on the political imperative of controlling immigration, while Hammond is focused on the economic imperative of maintaining growth. If their relationship is to endure far tougher times they will soon need to find a middle way. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.