Far from saving the world, this government’s banking policy has been a disaster. First they bungled their monetary and regulatory policy allowing the uncontrolled boom. Then they helped bankrupt some of the leading players. Now we have too few banks, too little credit and too many losses from nationalised banks they should never have bought. It is difficult to think of an error they did not make.
Today we hear that LLoyds in just six months has had to write off another £13,400,000,000 of bad debts from its loan book. Why didn’t the government insist on proper write offs when they were negotiating purchase of the shares in the first place? As much of this came from HBOS, why on earth did they want to encourage one of the worst mergers in the UK corporate history, and make a relatively good bank, LLoyds, a state pensioner as well? The taxpayer ends up with a huge shareholding in a heavily loss making bank. We have to pay for the losses, and are currently being invited to take over all the worst debts as well!
The Vince Cable/Alastair Darling strategy of owning these mega loss makers was always crazy. It is bad news for taxpayers and bad news for bank customers as well. There was an alternative. They should have blocked the LLoyds/HBOS merger, so LLoyds needed no government help. They should have offered minimum necessary support as loans to HBOS to make them sort themselves out and ensure their shareholders and counterparties took the hit, whilst protecting the smaller retail depositor. That would have been a much much cheaper solution.
Today we have politicians playing politics with banks. The government likes talking about banks, because they have found in some bankers people thought to be greedier and less reliable than politicians, so they make perfect whipping boys. The present policy is based on two public strands. The first is to use the FSA to insist on the banks lending huge sums to the government so it can carry on its crazy over spending with little visiible signs of credit distress. They call this raising the liquidity of banks, liquidity which has to be held in the form of loans to the government. This means there is little money left to lend to anyone else. Then the government can grandstand by blaming the banks for failing to go the aid of small business and first time home buyers, allowing them the moral luxury of taking the popular line.
The private strands behind this absurd policy are even more damaging. The taxpayer is taking the hit for past bank mistakes twice over. First, there are the visible and large losses the naitonalised banks are now revealing. These undermine the share values of what we have bought, and the government needs to act as guarantor that whatever they lose the taxpayer will bail them out. Second, the taxpayer is being asked to take over massive bad debts so that in due course the government can sell what remains back to the private sector claiming some kind of “success”
I am glad that more people are now coming round to my long held view that there is insufficient competition in the UK banking market, partly because there are too few banks. The government has made it worse by flagging through the mega mergers that made RBS and LLoyds the huge creatures they are today. We have been too poorly served for too long. At the time of the Conservative Economic Policy Review I argued that even then before the LLoyds/HBOS merger and disappearance of an independent Bradford and Bingley and Alliance and Leicester we had too little banking choice. We called in the review for new kinds of banks in the UK to offer better service to small business.
It is vital for the future health of the UK economy that the next government is pledged to return these banks to the private sector as quickly as possible, split up so they create more banks. I also hope other new players will come in from the retail and other worlds. We need more and better banks quickly. Current levels of fees, charges and bank imposed interest rates are too high and credit is scarce for reasonable new borrowers. That is the direct result of the manic banking policies followed in recent years.