Cyprus is paying a painful price for bowing to international capital

Being controlled by global financial interests does not benefit ordinary people, their economy or democracy, writes the Jubilee Debt Campaign's Tim Jones.

A small country is being brought to its knees by a huge banking system which has recklessly been lent money from overseas. Controls on money leaving the country have had to be introduced. The size of the debts owed mean there is no way the government can simply bailout the banks. For Cyprus in 2013 read also Iceland in 2008.

Both small islands let themselves become home to casino banks many times the size of their actual economies. Banks borrowed money from overseas, lending it on again in even greater quantities. But when these loans could not be paid, the banks were bust, threatening the savings of all those with accounts in the banks, including normally Icelanders and Cypriots who had no idea their money was being put on a global roulette wheel.

In 2008, the Icelandic government could simply not afford to bailout its banks. Instead it sought to protect savings of domestic Icelanders, a limited bailout, whilst letting the reckless banks go bust to their foreign creditors. Iceland inevitably went through a crisis, but its economy is now growing, unemployment falling, and its experience measures favourably against that of Ireland, Spain and even the UK.

Iceland’s approach is a good lens through which to try to assess what is happening in Cyprus. The original plan of last week was madness, hitting domestic savers however small their savings. Now the deal rightly protects Cypriots who had been told by the EU that their deposits up-to €100,000 were safe.

Depositors over €100,000 will see their claims taken into a bad-bank, from which they could get back very little. Reckless lenders to banks via bonds will also take a hit on their loans, unlike under the original plan. This appears to be fair; there is no reason why Cypriot or other taxpayers should bailout reckless lenders such as rich Russians, hiding their money away in a secretive tax haven. In many ways it repeats the Icelandic experience. However, by hitting Cypriots as well as foreigners, it could have major ramifications for Cyprus’ businesses. It is also questionable whether the EU is only allowing this approach this time because it is rich Russians who are set to lose out, not German, French and British banks.

And so we come to the "help" from the EU through bailout loans. Cyprus’ government cannot afford to protect all the deposits under €100,000, even though the EU has brought in a collective rule to that effect. Not having its own currency, Cyprus has no ability to bring in inventive policies to keep money moving round the economy. But by taking €10 billion of loans from the EU and IMF, Cyprus is taking on a further debt of 60 per cent of national income, on top of the over 60 per cent already owed, and with national income set to crash. These loans are not payable, yet as with Greece, Portugal and Ireland today, or Africa and Latin America in the 1980s and 1990s, huge suffering is about to be imposed in the name of trying to pay.

True assistance from the EU would be to provide this support as grants, a policy which would be fair given that it is to protect the EU wide deposit protection policy, and necessary because of the existence of the single-currency. The European Central Bank could create the one-off money to do so, with no visible impact anywhere else.

Cyprus is not Iceland. The single currency, and the failure to discriminate between domestic and foreign lenders to banks, means the crisis for the Cypriot people is set to be far worse. The EU should be giving real help to prevent the destruction of the economy and many peoples lives.

Much debate in Cyprus has seemed to be driven by the fear of what will happen if all the foreign financiers leave. But it is the very same people who have driven the country into crisis. The controls on moving money out of Cyprus need to be rigorously enforced to give some protection, just as they were in Iceland, and in Argentina following its default in 2001, and Malaysia during the Asian Financial Crisis. Thankfully the EU is turning a blind eye to the Lisbon treaty which prevents all regulations on the movement of money between countries. But the pity is that other such regulations were not used to prevent the reckless lending into the country in the first place.

Regulations on the movement of money between countries were common-place in the decades after the second world war, a period when there were hardly any debt crises. After they began to be removed in the 1970s, such crises have become common place, affecting every continent from Latin America and Europe, to East and Central Asia and now Europe today.

The crisis in Cyprus shows how damaging the banking industry can be when it gets too large, just as in Iceland, Ireland, Spain and the UK. For the country to emerge from this crisis, Cyprus, like so many other countries, needs to get control over its banks in order to get them to invest in productive industries, rather than being part of a global speculation and tax avoidance ring.

Being controlled by global financial interests does not benefit ordinary people, their economy or democracy. Whilst Cyprus is going someway to making reckless lenders share in the pain, the failure to truly discriminate between domestic and foreign debts, and the lack of real help from the EU, means much suffering lies ahead.

Photograph: Getty Images

Tim Jones is policy officer at Jubilee Debt Campaign. Jubilee Debt Campaign is part of a global movement demanding freedom from the slavery of unjust debts and a new financial system that puts people first.

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Let's turn RBS into a bank for the public interest

A tarnished symbol of global finance could be remade as a network of local banks. 

The Royal Bank of Scotland has now been losing money for nine consecutive years. Today’s announcement of a further £7bn yearly loss at the publicly-owned bank is just the latest evidence that RBS is essentially unsellable. The difference this time is that the Government seems finally to have accepted that fact.

Up until now, the government had been reluctant to intervene in the running of the business, instead insisting that it will be sold back to the private sector when the time is right. But these losses come just a week after the government announced that it is abandoning plans to sell Williams & Glynn – an RBS subsidiary which has over 300 branches and £22bn of customer deposits.

After a series of expensive delays and a lack of buyer interest, the government now plans to retain Williams & Glynn within the RBS group and instead attempt to boost competition in the business lending market by granting smaller "challenger banks" access to RBS’s branch infrastructure. It also plans to provide funding to encourage small businesses to switch their accounts away from RBS.

As a major public asset, RBS should be used to help achieve wider objectives. Improving how the banking sector serves small businesses should be the top priority, and it is good to see the government start to move in this direction. But to make the most of RBS, they should be going much further.

The public stake in RBS gives us a unique opportunity to create new banking institutions that will genuinely put the interests of the UK’s small businesses first. The New Economics Foundation has proposed turning RBS into a network of local banks with a public interest mandate to serve their local area, lend to small businesses and provide universal access to banking services. If the government is serious about rebalancing the economy and meeting the needs of those who feel left behind, this is the path they should take with RBS.

Small and medium sized enterprises are the lifeblood of the UK economy, and they depend on banking services to fund investment and provide a safe place to store money. For centuries a healthy relationship between businesses and banks has been a cornerstone of UK prosperity.

However, in recent decades this relationship has broken down. Small businesses have repeatedly fallen victim to exploitative practice by the big banks, including the the mis-selling of loans and instances of deliberate asset stripping. Affected business owners have not only lost their livelihoods due to the stress of their treatment at the hands of these banks, but have also experienced family break-ups and deteriorating physical and mental health. Others have been made homeless or bankrupt.

Meanwhile, many businesses struggle to get access to the finance they need to grow and expand. Small firms have always had trouble accessing finance, but in recent decades this problem has intensified as the UK banking sector has come to be dominated by a handful of large, universal, shareholder-owned banks.

Without a focus on specific geographical areas or social objectives, these banks choose to lend to the most profitable activities, and lending to local businesses tends to be less profitable than other activities such as mortgage lending and lending to other financial institutions.

The result is that since the mid-1980s the share of lending going to non-financial businesses has been falling rapidly. Today, lending to small and medium sized businesses accounts for just 4 per cent of bank lending.

Of the relatively small amount of business lending that does occur in the UK, most is heavily concentrated in London and surrounding areas. The UK’s homogenous and highly concentrated banking sector is therefore hampering economic development, starving communities of investment and making regional imbalances worse.

The government’s plans to encourage business customers to switch away from RBS to another bank will not do much to solve this problem. With the market dominated by a small number of large shareholder-owned banks who all behave in similar ways (and who have been hit by repeated scandals), businesses do not have any real choice.

If the government were to go further and turn RBS into a network of local banks, it would be a vital first step in regenerating disenfranchised communities, rebalancing the UK’s economy and staving off any economic downturn that may be on the horizon. Evidence shows that geographically limited stakeholder banks direct a much greater proportion of their capital towards lending in the real economy. By only investing in their local area, these banks help create and retain wealth regionally rather than making existing geographic imbalances worce.

Big, deep challenges require big, deep solutions. It’s time for the government to make banking work for small businesses once again.

Laurie Macfarlane is an economist at the New Economics Foundation