Outlook: Reformers should look at £38bn bung from taxpayer to the banks

  • @TheIndyBusiness

That the Banking Reform Bill is a worthwhile effort is largely thanks to the efforts of Andrew Tyrie and his colleagues on the Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards.

They forced a government still leery about upsetting the City into accepting a package of reforms that it would really rather have swept under the carpet and forgotten about.

However, even with the exhaustive process all but over, it’s worth remembering that this is an industry that is still receiving a £37.5bn bung from the taxpayer.

Not in direct aid, it’s true. But a subsidy is still a subsidy. Here’s how it comes about: the number was calculated by the New Economics Foundation as the benefit received by the big four British banks through the implicit state guarantees that they enjoy to this day.

The markets believe that these banks – Barclays, Lloyds, Royal Bank of Scotland and HSBC – are too big to fail.

Banks now have so-called “living wills” that are supposed to ensure an orderly wind up if they go bad.

As a result, smaller banks – and the Co-op is a good example here – can be allowed to fall over. There are mechanisms in place to allow this while ensuring they don’t drag customers and other banks down with them.

But if one of the big banks were to appear to be in danger of falling off a cliff, for whatever reason, – and the next crisis is all too likely to come from a direction that has barely been considered – is there really any doubt that the state will step in? That is certainly what the markets think will happen. As a result, the big four are able to secure financing at preferential rates that provides them with a net benefit of £37.5bn.

Standard & Poor’s, Moody’s, Fitch et al might assign these banks their own individual credit ratings. However, in reality, they all enjoy an effective rating of S&P’s AA+. Which is the rating of the UK Government that stands behind those banks.

You’d think, this being the case, that we’d be able to get something in return for this. But, in truth, we actually get very little.

Remember, the big banks only really started lending to support the economy when the Bank of England started throwing cheap money at them. Which is effectively another subsidy. 

Meanwhile, the impact of George Osborne’s banking levy is limited at best, and while the cost of ring-fencing retail banks could cost up to £2.5bn, it’s a drop in the ocean compared to that £37.5bn.

Based on this, perhaps we should be asking a question: Should the bill really be viewed as the end of a reform process? Or just the beginning?

EU inquiry shines light on dithering over nuclear power

 “Brussels bureaucrats blast Britain’s nuclear programme”. This is the developing narrative surrounding the forthcoming EU competition investigation into the proposed new nuclear plant at Hinkley Point, its financing and the price for the electricity it will eventually produce that has been guaranteed to EDF Energy and its cohorts.

The problem with such an investigation is that it is likely to result in more delays to an already tortuous process. Grist to the eurosceptics mill then?

Well, maybe. Interestingly, the GMB union is rather more sanguine.

It points out that – given the scale of the project – it would be actually be very surprising were the commission not to run the slide rule over it.

Moreover, an investigation into the set up of Hinkley could actually be seen as a positive thing if it gives a clean bill of health to the financing, and to that electricity price. If it doesn’t do this, then maybe we should thank it for raising the issue given what is at stake for the taxpayer and for energy consumers.

And as for those delays that the baddies in Brussels are creating?

Here’s the thing: it’s not as if the need for Britain to develop new sources of energy through projects like this is news. Whitehall has been aware of the problem for years, and yet it has sat on its hands.

If the EU delays the project by a matter of months, even a year, that’s nothing compared to the delays caused by the British Government’s complacency and its unwillingness to take difficult, and potentially controversial, decisions to ensure that the lights stay on. The real problem with projects like Hinkley have been caused not by bureaucrats in Brussels but by paper pushers closer to home.

Trade with China? We may need that third runway

Another marvellous example of that is the continuing paralysis among policymakers over what to do about the UK’s airports and their future capacity.

Today sees the publication of the interim report of the Airports Commission, the next plodding step in a process in which it’s still hard to see an end in sight.

David Cameron likes nothing better than to be seen glad-handing in China, while his people push out press releases gushing about multi-million pound trade deals.

Meanwhile, there is much talk on the Conservative benches about Britain’s need to do more in this dynamic region.

Ah, but when it comes to taking concrete steps to facilitate that – through a third runway at Heathrow, for example? Ah, erm, hmm. It might upset our voters you see.

Meanwhile, our EU partners have no such scruples. They also like the idea of trade with the East. And they have airports that offer direct flights to allow their business leaders to get there.