A woman enters a bank which re-opened near a barricade in central Kiev on 25 February, 2014. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Investors hesitate as Ukraine teeters on the precipice

In recent days Ukrainian bonds suffered the worst selloff on record and the stock index fell 2.8 per cent

As central Kiev has descended further into violence, the complexity of the divisions - beyond a simple fissure between east and west - have become apparent.

The focal point of the Orange Revolution of 2004-05 was simple: Viktor Yushchenko was the legitimate winner of the presidential election and the people went onto the street to protest the rigged ballot that gave Yanukovych the presidency. Protests were peaceful, the movement had a single figurehead and the objective was clear.

The situation in 2014 is far more complex. Demonstrations were triggered by Yanukovych’s decision not to sign a wide-ranging association agreement with the European Union - a decision the western media attributed to pressure from Russia.

This obviates the role ill-informed EU policy played. In demanding a final, all or nothing, response from Ukraine, a country in need of emergency funding, Yanukovych was left with little room for manoeuvre. President Vladimir Putin was offering cash. The EU was making promises and in so doing, Brussels misplayed its hand.

Branding Yanukovych as "pro-Russia" ignores the competing pressures within Ukrainian politics, particularly when he has taken significant steps to strengthen relations with the west. Ukraine is one of Europe’s most promising energy frontiers and hosts Europe’s third largest shale gas reserves. In November 2013 Kiev signed a production sharing agreement (PSA) with Chevron of the US, worth up to USD 10 billion, to explore for and produce shale gas in the Oleska field in western Ukraine. This was followed in January 2014, with the signing of a similar deal with Royal Dutch Shell for the Yuzivska field in the east of the country.

Conventional oil and gas exploration deals are also being signed. Ukraine agreed a PSA with an ExxonMobil-led consortium to exploit a field of the western coast of the Black Sea.

The signing of such deals with western oil majors is a significant departure from what has gone before. Even under Yushchenko’s pro-western leadership after the Orange Revolution, western companies were largely shut out the country’s energy sector, or put off by uncertain legislation.

Yanukovych, who became president in 2010, in contrast, has been more pragmatic in terms of opening the hydrocarbons production to the west. Efforts have also been made to significantly improve the legislative environment.

Despite this evolution, Ukraine has limited room for political and economic manoeuvre, a fact the EU appears to have ignored during negotiations. Irrespective of the international orientation of its leaders, the Ukraine remains heavily dependent on Moscow for its gas supply, with Russian imports accounting for 60 per cent of consumption. In retaliation for the Orange Revolution, Moscow raised gas prices and cut off supplies in 2006 and 2009, amid pricing disputes. The agreement that ended the 2009 cut-off left Ukraine paying some of the highest prices in Europe.

Unless Ukraine is able to develop its shale gas reserves and wean itself off dependence on Russian energy this cycle of economic vulnerability will continue.

Investors are ditching assets; punishing Ukraine for the protests. In recent days Ukrainian bonds suffered the worst selloff on record and the stock index fell 2.8 per cent. Yields on government bonds maturing in June reached an all-time high of 34 per cent, trading a yield on the 2014 note traded a record 23 per cent about the rate on debt maturing in April 2023.

Ukraine is grappling with a record current-account deficit and foreign reserves are at the lowest level since 2006. The country has USD17 billion of liabilities coming due, excluding interest, through the end of 2015 and at the time of writing Moscow has delayed a USD2 billion purchase of Eurobonds citing "technical delays".

The EU is threatening sanctions, a move that will have limited short-term impact and will do little to end the bloodshed, particularly if Putin opens his cheque book.

In the medium term, Ukraine’s gas reserves and agricultural output have the potential to make it a relatively wealthy country. In the short term, investors are panicking, sending the economy to the brink of a precipice.

The insurance market has all but closed its books to new Ukrainian risk. While there is relative optimism around Ukraine’s prospects over a six month time horizon, in the immediate term underwriters and investors want to minimise their exposures.

It is unclear where the protests go from here. Yanukovych won a relatively free and fair election and it could be considered a loss for democracy if he is forced from office. If he succumbs to pressure who should replace him? The opposition, unlike 2004-05, cannot offer an undisputed successor. It is a disparate grouping with several figureheads, radical elements and no clear leadership.

The departure of Yanuckovych does not provide a viable solution. There is widespread concern in Ukraine about the level of corruption in government. Even if Yanukovych is removed from office corruption will not necessarily diminish. A big question is how intrinsically entrenched Russian business interests are within Ukrainian politics and commerce, as these systemic flaws pose the greatest threat to the development of a democratic system.

JLT Head of Credit & Political Risk Advisory

Getty
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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