David Prosser: The Chancellor's mixed message for lenders to Britain's small businesses

 

Outlook The problem with robbing Peter to pay Paul, which is what this Autumn Statement is all about, is that Peter isn't likely to take it lying down. So it may prove with the difficult balance the Chancellor continues to try to strike with Britain's banks.

On the one hand, Mr Osborne seeks to address the complaints of small business about access to loans with an ambitious credit easing scheme: it will help banks raise cash on the wholesale markets more cheaply and thus to provide more affordable loans to SMEs. On the other, the Chancellor also has to address the shortfall he faces on his bank levy, so he's raising the rate at which it is charged.

The two measures exert quite different pulls on the big banks. Lending more, to whoever, raises the size of a bank's balance sheet. A bank's levy bill is calculated according to the size of the balance sheet, so a higher rate is an incentive to shrink it.

Which of those pulls will prove strongest? Well, each bank will take a different view, depending on their circumstances. But note that the trend at all our banks since the credit crisis has been to shrink the balance sheet, in the face of higher capital requirements imposed by regulators.

This is not to say that either credit easing or a higher bank levy is the wrong policy. The Chancellor's blueprint for the former is ingenious in that it leaves lending decisions in the hands of the banks, though the taxpayer will ultimately be on the hook for losses. On the latter, Mr Osborne had no choice but to raise the rate as the levy would otherwise have produced less revenue than expected.

Banks will remain cautious though. The Government will not unveil its formal response to the Vickers report on banking reform until next month. Nor does the City believe regulators will use their new counter-cyclical powers to relax capital requirements during an economic downturn, when more lending is required.

One final point on the bank levy. The Chancellor took the opportunity yesterday to yet again make his hostility to a financial transactions tax clear. He fears that introducing such a tax across Europe, as the European Commission wants, would drive banks into territories that do not introduce the levy.

How does that anxiety square with his plan to increase the bank levy, a tax that applies only in this country? On the Chancellor's own logic, Barclays, HSBC and the rest will be packing their bags as we speak.

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