The condensed Moody's downgrade

What does the rating agency say about Britain?

The Moody's credit rating agency downgraded Britain yesterday. It's important to note that ratings agencies "quite simply don't understand what they themselves are saying", that they aren't very good at rating credit, and that no-one actually cares if a country's rating does get cut — but with all of that in mind, what does Moody's actually say about Britain?

The agency's own summary gives three interrelated reasons for the downgrade:

  1. The continuing weakness in the UK's medium-term growth outlook, with a period of sluggish growth which Moody's now expects will extend into the second half of the decade;
  2. The challenges that subdued medium-term growth prospects pose to the government's fiscal consolidation programme, which will now extend well into the next parliament;
  3. And, as a consequence of the UK's high and rising debt burden, a deterioration in the shock-absorption capacity of the government's balance sheet, which is unlikely to reverse before 2016.

That is, we aren't growing, that growth is harming our ability to deal with the deficit, and that deficit means we're less likely to be able to deal with any other nastiness the global economic climate throws at us.

Expanding on the first of those, Moody's says:

Despite considerable structural economic strengths, the UK's economic growth will remain sluggish over the next few years due to the anticipated slow growth of the global economy and the drag on the UK economy from the ongoing domestic public- and private-sector deleveraging process.

Moody's also slams the Chancellor for his "smash and grab raid" on the Bank of England's QE funds, saying that:

Moody's now expects that the UK's gross general government debt level will peak at just over 96% of GDP in 2016. The rating agency says that it would have expected it to peak at a higher level if the government had not reduced its debt stock by transferring funds from the Asset Purchase Facility which will equal to roughly 3.7% of GDP in total as announced in November 2012.

The agency is clear, though, that the failure to cut the deficit comes from a lack of growth, not a lack of commitment. In other words, Osborne's plan was always likely to be self-defeating:

More specifically, projected tax revenue increases have been difficult to achieve in the UK due to the challenging economic environment. As a result, the weaker economic outturn has substantially slowed the anticipated pace of deficit and debt-to-GDP reduction, and is likely to continue to do so over the medium term.

And so, Moody's says, with too much debt we won't be able to deal with another recession:

Moody's believes that the mounting debt levels in a low-growth environment have impaired the sovereign's ability to contain and quickly reverse the impact of adverse economic or financial shocks. For example, given the pace of deficit and debt reduction that Moody's has observed since 2010, there is a risk that the UK government may not be able to reverse the debt trajectory before the next economic shock or cyclical downturn in the economy.

These words will be dissected over the next few days, as every political actor tries to read into them what they want. Some will focus on the fact that Moody's analysis starts with poor growth as the basic factor for Osborne's failure. Others will note that Moody's is still a firm advocate of high-speed deficit reduction.

Still others, myself included, will argue that, apart from the fact that the Chancellor has been hoist by his own petard, all the news really does is prove yet again that ratings agencies aren't very good at their jobs. Moody's recognises that Britain's economic travails stem from depressed growth, but its analysis seems incapable of progressing on from there. Taken as a whole, the agency is saying, with a straight face, that "Britain's attempts to cut its debt have harmed its attempts to cut its debt, and this could harm its attempts to cut its debt", and it sees nothing problematic with that.

Really, nothing in Moody's analysis matters. The only important part of it is that one missing A, and the effect that has on Osborne's credibility.

Moody's. 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.

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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