Will the Sparks light up SME lending?

Ed Miliband is a man with a plan.

George reports that Ed Miliband is to take inspiration from the German Sparkassen system, and establish a new network of regional banks in the UK.

Miliband, and his shadow business secretary Chuka Umunna, are positing the new banks—apparently to be anglicised as "Sparks"—as a solution to Britain's lending crisis. The idea is that by devolving state-supported lending to SMEs down to the regional level, the banks may be able to use their local knowledge to get more return on their investment—helping the business with strong links to the local community and a record of job creation, rather than just the one which has the healthiest profit/loss ratio.

The move is supported by many. David Green, the director of the Civitas think-tank, says that, "the Sparkassen were a major factor in helping Germany bounce back from the recession so much more quickly than the UK, which has been held back by the coalition Government's miserable failure to learn the most obvious lessons from overseas."

But the problem with Britain's SME lending is more complex than just greedy bankers. The ever-perceptive Dan Davies sums it up in just a few tweets:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The meme of "greedy bankers not lending to embattled small businesses" is a strong one, but as Davies says, there are far more structural problems when it comes to that market. Basicall

What we should really be looking for in the Sparks, then, is whether they can overcome those problems. They clearly can't fix our housing market, and if defaulting on a business loan locks you out of the housing market forever then risk aversion on the part of the business owners is understandable. At the same time, to remove that barrier—to let SMEs take out loans which don't require personal guarantees—is inviting fraud.

The big hope for the Sparks is that they will be able to crack down on fraud in other ways. If their regional basis really does render them better-placed to work out whether a particular application is fraudulent than commercial banks, then they could stand a chance of making un-guaranteed loans profitable. Alternatively, of course, the government could decide that, in a recession, the profitability of the banks is no longer an issue. The Sparks could be run at a loss, deliberately making riskier loans than is commercially sensible, until growth picks up.

That wouldn't work as a stated policy, because the minute it was announced that they would be deliberately amenable to fraud, fraud would shoot up. But if Labour were more interested in fixing the economy than getting credit for fixing the economy, it could be a smart way to go.

A German Sparkasse. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Photo: Getty
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George Osborne's mistakes are coming back to haunt him

George Osborne's next budget may be a zombie one, warns Chris Leslie.

Spending Reviews are supposed to set a strategic, stable course for at least a three year period. But just three months since the Chancellor claimed he no longer needed to cut as far or as fast this Parliament, his over-optimistic reliance on bullish forecasts looks misplaced.

There is a real risk that the Budget on March 16 will be a ‘zombie’ Budget, with the spectre of cuts everyone thought had been avoided rearing their ugly head again, unwelcome for both the public and for the Chancellor’s own ambitions.

In November George Osborne relied heavily on a surprise £27billion windfall from statistical reclassifications and forecasting optimism to bury expected police cuts and politically disastrous cuts to tax credits. We were assured these issues had been laid to rest.

But the Chancellor’s swagger may have been premature. Those higher income tax receipts he was banking on? It turns out wage growth may not be so buoyant, according to last week’s Bank of England Inflation Report. The Institute for Fiscal Studies suggest the outlook for earnings growth will be revised down taking £5billion from revenues.

Improved capital gains tax receipts? Falling equity markets and sluggish housing sales may depress CGT and stamp duties. And the oil price shock could hit revenues from North Sea production.

Back in November, the OBR revised up revenues by an astonishing £50billion+ over this Parliament. This now looks a little over-optimistic.

But never let it be said that George Osborne misses an opportunity to scramble out of political danger. He immediately cashed in those higher projected receipts, but in doing so he’s landed himself with very little wriggle room for the forthcoming Budget.

Borrowing is just not falling as fast as forecast. The £78billion deficit should have been cut by £20billion by now but it’s down by just £11billion. So what? Well this is a Chancellor who has given a cast iron guarantee to deliver a surplus by 2019-20. So he cannot afford to turn a blind eye.

All this points towards a Chancellor forced to revisit cuts he thought he wouldn’t need to make. A zombie Budget where unpopular reductions to public services are still very much alive, even though they were supposed to be history. More aggressive cuts, stealthy tax rises, pension changes designed to benefit the Treasury more than the public – all of these are on the cards. 

Is this the Chancellor’s misfortune or was he chancing his luck? As the IFS pointed out at the time, there was only really a 50/50 chance these revenue windfalls were built on solid ground. With growth and productivity still lagging, gloomier market expectations, exports sluggish and both construction and manufacturing barely contributing to additional expansion, it looks as though the Chancellor was just too optimistic, or perhaps too desperate for a short-term political solution. It wouldn’t be the first time that George Osborne has prioritised his own political interests.

There’s no short cut here. Productivity-enhancing public services and infrastructure could and should have been front and centre in that Spending Review. Rebalancing the economy should also have been a feature of new policy in that Autumn Statement, but instead the Chancellor banked on forecast revisions and growth too reliant on the service sector alone. Infrastructure decisions are delayed for short-term politicking. Uncertainty about our EU membership holds back business investment. And while we ought to have a consensus about eradicating the deficit, the excessive rigidity of the Chancellor’s fiscal charter bears down on much-needed capital investment.

So for those who thought that extreme cuts to services, a harsh approach to in-work benefits or punitive tax rises might be a thing of the past, beware the Chancellor whose hubris may force him to revive them after all. 

Chris Leslie is chair of Labour's backbench Treasury committee.