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Bookmark and ShareVeronika Thiel is a researcher and project manager on nef’s Access to Finance team.


reposessions

The topic of the day is unemployment. At the moment, more people in the UK are unemployed than they were before Labour came into power. Not a nice reflection on the track record of the current Government. Why were so many jobs lost? Of course, the financial crisis. Always the financial crisis. However, looking at the types of jobs that are lost, many of those would have been low-skill jobs in the service sector that are expendable when the going gets tough. Demand for dry cleaners, office cleaners, caterers and sandwich sellers disappears quickly when the people demanding these services (i.e. those working in financial institutions) find themselves out of a job as well. So, all we have to do is make sure these financial wizards get their jobs back, so that those caterers and cleaners can get back on track, right? Wrong. What the crisis very clearly shows is that a lot of the employment created through the bubble was fleeting, just as the billions or even trillions of pounds that have now vanished into thin air. The jobs were not embedded in the real economy, the manufacturing of goods or the provision of services that we all need every day – for example good quality child care. Instead, people worked hard for measly incomes, were mostly unable to save, and loose the few assets they have, e.g. cars (which are often needed in order to get a new job). At the same time, they can’t honour credit commitments any more, meaning they are frequently over-indebted – or have already applied for personal insolvency. The latest stats show another increase in this
number.

So what we need to do as part of the recovery is create jobs that allow people to build greater resilience against such crises in the future. There is little point in having millions of people relying on the hire and fire jobs that are so dependent on the economic cycle. In addition, people need help in building savings, skills and aspiration – now more than ever. However, as we discovered in recent research, many efforts to build assets and thus to improve crisis resilience are eroded during the current crisis. Governments across the EU are cutting back social support to the unemployed, and cancel grants to organisations that seek to help people in dire straits. Instead of nurturing the efforts of aspiring entrepreneurs and savers, there is little to no effort to help people help themselves. Particularly in the UK, asset erosion is happening on a large scale. Banks repossess houses at the earliest possibility instead of trying to find a solution with the client. Even worse, debt is sold off to debt collection agencies that sometimes use threats and psychological warfare to recover money, with an added fee on top. Credit card companies often refuse negotiations with debt advice organisations and insist on immediate payments. None of these practices are challenged by Government. Everything plays second fiddle to the financial institutions – it’s for them to get their books back in order, and the quickest way of doing this is to get rid of bad debt. In the long run, this practice entrenches existing and new poverty.

Our research found that organisations such as Toynbee Hall and Fair Finance see a huge increase in demand for their services. Scarily enough, many of the people now seeking advice and help are those that were considered well-placed in society: low- and middle-income families with a house and a steady income. Despite this increase in demand, not a penny of the stimulus packages has been allocated to these and other organisations to meet the increased demand. The consequences: bankruptcy and hardship. Poverty and destitution. This will cost a lot more in the future to rectify than investing in advice and support services now. The overwhelming majority of people wants to work and is seeking work – but they have to have the ability to do so. An undischarged bankruptcy, homelessness and a pile of debt and worries will not be helpful to this end.

Our report thus calls on the Government to support asset building efforts and to recognise how helpful they can be in helping people through tough times. Asset building should be part of mainstream politics, not a niche as they are now.

It is always better to make people self-reliant rather than having to feed them in times when money is tight. Cutting budgets for asset-building activities now is the worst way of going about it.

Bookmark and ShareVeronika Thiel is a researcher and project manager on nef’s Access to Finance team.

The Treasury Committee has published its last report on the banking crisis today, and it isn’t exactly diplomatic in its choice of words to describe the FSA’s failing and what needs to be done to prevent such a crisis from happening again.

The report says that the FSA failed ‘dreadfully’ in its banking supervision in the run-up to the crisis, and although there are apparent changes in the way it’s dealing with the market, the committee fears that these changes may just be a fad.

With that, they hit the nail on the head: it is to a certain extent quite fashionable now to talk about tighter regulation and letting banks not to grow too big. However, this rhetoric is rarely followed through with sufficient vigour. The Government, which is also heavily criticised in the report, should take the recommendations of the select committee to heart and act on them. They tie in nicely with our recommendations, so it’s well worth repeating them here:

– Separate retail and investment banking
– Ensure that no bank is too big to fail, or even too big to save
– Increase capital holding requirements for banks
– Don’t shy away from speaking out

The last point really must be emphasised. For too long, anyone who voiced criticism of the Finance-binge bonanza, be it a regulator, a banker, or a politician, was branded a spoil-sport and a doomsayer. I don’t want to excuse the FSA for its inactions and ineptitude, but even if it had taken a tougher stance, then it is quite likely that banking lobbyists and the Government would have told the regulators to back off. Hence the committee’s remark that the FSA must ‘develop the confidence to take unpopular decisions’ falls a bit short of the mark. The FSA must be given the authority and independence to be able to develop this confidence, to be able to be unpopular. Regulators aren’t there to make the banks all comfy. They are there to ensure the our money is safe. Let’s make sure that that’s not forgotten.

Bookmark and ShareVeronika Thiel is a researcher and project manager on nef’s Access to Finance team.

sausagesforsaleThe Government, or rather the Department for Business Enterprise and Regulatory Reform (BERR), has just announced the introduction of a new Government guarantee scheme, the Enterprise Finance Guarantee. Many papers imply that the taxpayer may ‘commit to guaranteeing up to £21bn of bank lending’ to small and medium enterprises or SMEs.

But don’t worry, we’ll never have to pay this vast amount. Because in essence, the scheme aims to get banks to do what they usually do, which is lending to businesses with very little likelihood of going bust, just like they did before the crunch.

Why? Bear with me while I briefly delve into the loan guarantee schemes. These schemes are principally designed to encourage lenders, e.g. banks, or CDFIs , to lend to enterprises that they normally would deem to be too risky to lend to, for example because the entrepreneur does not have a good credit history, or trades in a niche markets the bank has never heard of before.

In Britain, this scheme has existed for quite some time under the name of the the Small Firms Loan Guarantee Scheme, or SFLG. Under the scheme, the Government guarantees 75% of the loan, i.e if the business goes bust, the bank can rest assured that the write-off is only 25%.

An example may help. Let’s say I want to open a business dealing in something rather obscure, say, in German delicatessen such as Weisswurst. For this, I need a loan of £5000. There isn’t much evidence of the market size in the UK for Weisswurst, and hence the CDFI is reluctant to lend me the money as they can’t be sure I’ll succeed and pay the loan back, interest and all. But because of the SFLG, they will lend me the money anyway as the government will guarantee 75% of it, or £3750. This obviously greatly reduces the potential loss should no one decide to embrace the pleasures of Weisswurst.

BERR’s new scheme ostensibly still does the same – but in fact, it is a much reduced version of the SLFG. At first sight, it sounds like a good deal, because the minimum and maximum loan levels it can be used for have been extended. Under the old scheme, only loans between £5000 and £250,000 would be guaranteed. Under the new scheme, this is expanded to include loans of £1000 to £1m. But, and this is where it gets tricky, there is a claim limit of 13.75%.

This means that if a CDFI lends £100,000 of guaranteed loans, it can only claim a maximum of £13,500. So it loses out, big time. Under the rules of the old scheme, CDFIs could claim £75,000 of the £100,000 back. So the new scheme is a whopping 82% reduction compared to the old guarantee!

This much lower guarantee will prompt lenders to only lend to those businesses that seem to be low-risk – thereby perverting the original aim of the Guarantee Scheme to provide credit to business that is slightly less ‘normal’ than what the lender thinks it is.

Hang on – isn’t this what banks are supposed outside of these guarantee schemes? Err… yes. But they don’t. That’s why they need more incentives. In addition to the billions of pounds of public money they have just received, the interest cuts, etc. So what happens to all those businesses that fall of the way-side of banks’ tight credit scoring?

Given that the definition of what is risky or not lies with the banks, and banks currently don’t seem to be too keen on the old lending business, there may well be thousands of businesses who will suddenly find themselves on the wrong side of the credit score, without any recourse to credit, because the guaranteed loans all went to those businesses that do not present a risk. So they will go bust. That’s exactly what the scheme was supposed to prevent – but is perversely quite likely to encourage. So, our taxpayers money is safe – until it has to be spent to help those millions who have lost their job to find new ones.

Shurely shome mistake?

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nef employees blog in their personal capacity. The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the new economics foundation.