James Moore: When investors see Britain's banks as a good bet it must be really bad in Europe

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Outlook Given the amount of taxpayers' money that has been pumped into the British banking system it seems rather odd that all of a sudden the investment community is starting to see it as, if not exactly a safe bet, then at least comfortingly defensive. But that is what's happening. Only the Nordic banks appear to be in a similarly happy state. If happy is the right word for anything connected with banking at the moment.

This isn't so much because of confidence in the likes of Barclays, HSBC, Lloyds and RBS as it is a reflection on just how bad things have got in Europe.

The need for something in excess of €100bn (£87bn) to recapitalise much of the Continent's banking system is going to devastate shareholder value when (if) it finally gets done. It says a lot that some analysts are already breathing metaphorical sighs of relief because the figure is "only" €100bn. Let's wait and see on that one, shall we.

Things look rather different on this side of the Channel. It is true that British banks have not been free of suggestions that they too might have to reach for the panic buttons. There have been one or two research reports arguing just that. However, this research, together with the more lurid rumours that have been floating around dealing rooms, appears to have been flawed.

Time for bankers to start slapping themselves on the back and suggesting that they might perhaps deserve a bit of a bonus (or three) for keeping things steady while their compatriots on the Continent are busily falling apart perhaps? They might like to hold their horses a while.

The private (and sometimes public) bitching about the FSA/Bank of England requirements that banks hold more capital has been loud and long-standing. And it hasn't finished yet.

Yesterday, however, no less than Andrew Tyrie, the chairman of the Treasury Select Committee, warned that tighter rules on capital (and other regulation) could be hitting banks' ability to lend to businesses and choking off Britain's economic recovery.

But is this true? The spectre of banks – private businesses it should be remembered – going cap-in-hand to the taxpayer cannot be allowed to be repeated. They had to do this in the first place because they weren't sufficiently capitalised to deal with the effect of the financial crisis. To prevent a repeat requires that they be better capitalised.

As evidenced by the view of British banks as defensive, they largely now are. And yet so far no one has been able to come up with a compelling answer to the question of why the supply of credit to small and medium-sized businesses is still so constrained. Perhaps, with trading statements due over the next few days, the banks' top executives might like to come up with some suggestions.

Where are the advocates for capitalism?

Much has been made of the rather vague nature of the anti-capitalist protests that have been repeated across the world. Yesterday, the pressure group UK Uncut added a little clarity when it joined forces with the demonstrators who show no signs of quitting their encampment outside St Paul's Cathedral.

UK Uncut is quite clear what it is cross about: claims that HM Revenue & Customs has done sweetheart deals with big companies (the headline-grabbing one is allegedly with Goldman Sachs, which HMRC denies). It wants heads to roll. With thoughts turning to end-of-year tax returns and the HMRC's typically aggressive approach, it won't be short of supporters.

In general, however, protesters are rather less specific about their demands. But what is striking is the lack of anyone to forcefully put the case for the defence of the capitalism they are so incoherently angry about it.

There seems to be a desperate paucity of effective advocates. Perhaps this explains why David Buik, now in semi-retirement from BGC Partners, has been so visible in recent days. He's even had the gumption to go and put a case to the demonstrators. But Mr Buik is something of a voice in the wilderness.

This really doesn't speak well of the skills of London's huge financial PR industry. The next time those with their hands on the purse-strings see Mr Buik ploughing a lonely furrow, they might like to ask exactly what they're getting for the millions they pay to it.

A tip for Greece: fine the British lager louts

The problem with austerity measures driven by public-sector debt is that if you cut too far and too fast they become counter-productive: you risk damaging your economy so much that balancing the books gets harder and harder and you end up in a vicious circle (are you awake at the back, George Osborne?).

Which brings us to Greece, now facing just that problem. With a pressing need for revenue and economic activity, it is unlikely that even the worst of the British tourists who have blighted various resorts down the years will be turned away.

But perhaps the Greeks could turn the annual summer carnage to their advantage. I remember once being told about how the police in one of the southern US states (it's not only the federal government that has problems with a deficit stateside) had been issued with equipment to enable speeding motorists to pay through their cards, no questions asked, if they should stray even a mile or two an hour over the limit. The aim was to raise much-needed revenue.

The story may be apocryphal. But perhaps it can be applied to Greece.

If similar equipment is issued to police there, instead of arresting drunks they could levy spot fines for public drunkenness and its various spin-off offences before sending the boozy Brits to their lodgings to sleep it off and be ready for another session (and another fine) the next day.