Why Banks Can’t Be Trusted Anymore
Our finance system is rigged in favour of a crisis-ridden City to reap profits for individuals. It’s time these institutions worked for the good of communities
Sometimes the case for a policy is as overwhelming as the level of ridicule it will get from the punditocracy. The nationalisation of Britain’s failed banking industry – the sector responsible for most of our country’s current ills – is one such example. According to a recent poll, half the electorate support nationalising the banks, despite almost no one arguing for such a policy in public life.
It may well be because the banks plunged Britain into one of its worst economic crises in modern history, spawning, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, perhaps our worst squeeze in living standards since the 1750s. The fact that they have been bailed out by the taxpayer but allowed to carry on as though little happened – including more top British bankers in 2013 being gifted bonuses worth over €1m than all EU countries combined – while public services are gratuitously slashed, has rightly riled some British voters.
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Nationalisation of the banks is not about vengeance, though. Sure, the rip-off inefficiency of rail privatisation, or the failure of the great energy sell-off, or the fact that even the Financial Times has argued that privately run water is an indefensible debacle – all are testament to the intellectual poverty of the “private good, public bad” argument. None quite compete, however, with the matter of the banks leaving the entire western world consumed with the gravest series of crises since the second world war.
Would Brexit, Donald Trump, or the gathering demands for Catalonia to secede from crisis-ridden Spain have happened without the financial collapse? Almost certainly not. It is now somewhat darkly comic to note that most commentators and politicians claimed Labour lost the 2015 election because it was too leftwing. It is notable, then, that over four in 10 voters back then believed Labour was too soft on banks and big business, compared to just over one in five who differed.
Economist Laurie Macfarlane says the banks make a mockery of the nostrums of free-market capitalism. Because the banks were given state bailouts after their catastrophic failures, there is the assumption that, when another crisis hits, the same will happen again.
No other industry enjoys the same protection. They are “too big to fail”, which means they benefit from an implicit subsidy – worth £6bn in 2015. The Bank of England is their lender of last resort. State-backed deposit insurance of up to £85,000 per consumer is another de facto mass public subsidy.
As the New Economics Foundation says, it is commercial banks who are now responsible for creating the vast majority of money in economies like the UK, a source of vast profit. This is called “seigniorage” and – as the foundation puts it – it represents a “hidden annual subsidy” of £23bn a year, or nearly three-quarters of the banks’ after-tax profits. And banks are an essential public utility: it is almost impossible to be a citizen without a bank account, and there is no public option when it comes to making electronic payments.
Even now, as Macfarlane notes, the British state technically owns a fifth of the retail banking industry because of its stake in Royal Bank of Scotland. Repeated RBS scandals, and the aftermath of the EU referendum result, have dented the worth of the company’s shares, meaning that the state selling its stake would result in eye-watering losses. Meanwhile, small businesses have struggled to get the credit they need, and escalating household debt threatens the foundations of the stagnating British economy. But the state’s arms-length approach means RBS has failed both its customers and the broader economy. A profit-driven banking sector closed 1,150 branches in 2014 and 2015; about a third of those were owned by RBS. The bank once promised never to close the last branch in town; the pledge was broken, and 1,500 communities have been left with no bank branch. Vulnerable customers and small businesses inevitably suffer the most.
By contrast, foreign publicly owned banks are self-evident successes. Take Germany: KFW, the government-owned development bank, is crucial in developing national infrastructure as well as the renewable energy revolution. On a regional level, state-owned Landesbanken are responsible for industrial strategy. Then at the most local level, there are Sparkassen: they focus on developing relationships with local businesses and consumers. They’re not beholden to shareholders – instead, they have a stakeholder model, focused on helping local economies – indeed, their capital has to remain in local communities.
It is impossible to understand Britain’s current plight without examining the country’s rapid deindustrialisation in favour of a financial sector concentrated in London and the south-east. And according to New Economics Foundation, while foreign stakeholder banks lend two thirds of their assets to individuals and businesses in the real economy, that’s true with only a tiny proportion of British shareholder banks. Overwhelmingly, it goes to mortgage lending and lending to other financial institutions.
Our current banking system is rigged in favour of a crisis-ridden City. The New Economics Foundation suggests transforming RBS – in which the state still has a three-quarter share – into a network of local banks. Labour’s 2017 manifesto backed a review into these plans. A management board would run the network day to day, but a board of trustees would ensure the bank was accountable to the broader economy and customers, not shareholders.
A third would be elected by workers, a third by local authorities and a third by local stakeholders. The mandate of each local bank would be to promote local economies – not least their small businesses – rather than the City of London. Here is a model of democratic ownership that can, in time, be extended to the rest of the economy.
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Can it really be argued that private ownership of the banks is a case study of the glorious success of free market capitalism? The principle architect of Labour’s recent manifesto, Andrew Fisher, called for the nationalisation of Britain’s banking sector in his 2014 book The Failed Experiment: And How to Build an Economy That Works. He was surely right then and he is right now. As Macfarlane notes, there are different possible routes to the banks’ nationalisation: whether it be swapping corporate shares for government bonds, using quantitative easing to buy up shares, or simple nationalisation without compensation. Labour is right to call for a German-style public investment bank, backed up by similar publicly run local banks.
But such proposals are not in themselves sufficient. Britain’s privately run banks have proved a disaster for everyone except their shareholders. The only good alternative is public stakeholder banks, run by workers, consumers and local authorities, with an obligation to defend the best interests of our communities. Privately owned banks have proved a catastrophic failure – for our economy, our social cohesion and our politics. There is surely no alternative to public ownership.
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