When George Osborne, Shadow Chancellor, called for the break-up of Lloyds and RBS, he echoed the recommendations of our report I.O.U.K. on the failure of British banks to provide credit appropriate to our economy’s needs.
It seemed inevitable that this issue would rear its head again, and now we finally witness the financial sector’s response, via its ever-willing ally, the Government and Treasury. Their response came today with a Treasury report – commissioned before the worst days of the current crisis – that staunchly defends the right of big banks to get bigger. According to today’s Financial Times, the Chancellor and the authors reiterated the report’s findings that “an industry constrained on narrow lines would find it harder to develop new products”.
What does not seem to be acknowledged in the current debate is that the failure of overly-consolidated banking pre-dates the crisis. As we discussed in I.O.U.K., the inability of the banking sector to provide the necessary credit for thoses small businesses and sectors of the economy which do not enjoy unwavering Government support is not a result of the credit crunch and economic crisis. The reality is that banks have been withdrawing from communities, closing their branches and abandoning relationship-driven banking for over two decades now. And it is this retrenchment from the real economy which has made them so vulnerable to the kinds of economic shocks we have seen in the last eight months. Northern Rock and Bradford & Bingley used to be mutuals, but they abandoned old-fashioned banking and converted into shareholder-owned institutions in search of better returns. And the result of this shift? They both went bankrupt and had to be rescued by the taxpayer.
It was selfish herd-like behaviour seeking the easiest profits, encouraged by policymakers since Margaret Thatcher’s 1980s reforms, which thoroughly undermined our financial system. Perversely, it is now the Tories who seem to perceive the contradiction of a banking system with a permanent Government get-out-of-jail free card for banks that are, in the Shadow Chancellor’s words, “too big to fail, too big to bail”.
Perhaps the Conservatives are willing to contradict the prior orthodoxy just to win political points? Or maybe Osborne is just concerned about how big a headache a banking system in need of permanent subsidy will be when he has to present the next Budget?