Mr John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con): I remind the House that I provide investment advice on world markets and world economies, but I am pleased to say that it has nothing to do with banking credit or banking leverage, so I feel quite entitled to comment in this important debate.
I welcome what I hope is a probing new clause from the Opposition. It allows us to discuss something that is at the heart of what regulators need to do to have a strong banking sector and economy and to have the comfort at night of knowing that we will not live through another dreadful crisis like the credit crunch of the previous decade. The new clause goes to the heart of the issue: what action should the Government and regulators take to try to ensure that large banks and other institutions advancing credit that can be a risk to the whole system are kept under sensible control, so that we can be pretty confident that, if something goes wrong or the world economy dips, they have the necessary money to pay the bills and deal with any losses that might arise?
If we look at the tragic history of the previous decade, we can see that the then banking regulator in the United Kingdom—I think that it has now admitted this—got it wrong both ways. It wanted the banks to have too little capital, cash and protection, and in the run-up to the credit crisis in 2008 it allowed the most enormous expansion of leverage, which previous generations of regulators had not permitted. Then, in the ensuing panic, when interest rates had to rise to tackle the problem of inflation, it lurched to wanting very high amounts of capital, but at the time the banks could not generate profit and so found that very difficult.
That resulted in the previous Government’s decision, in two of the worst cases, that capital should be forthcoming from the state and taxpayers themselves. I think that we all agree that we do not want to go back around that course or to get to the position again where some Members of this House feel that the only option is for the state to provide taxpayer support for organisations that have been too leveraged.
New clause 9 suggests that it is possible to set a leverage ratio for the system as a whole, and it might be, and that might be desirable, and I look forward to the Minister’s response. Of course, the regulator already does that in a way because it sets individual target ratios or capital requirements for all the major banks in the system, so if we aggregate those we get to its view of the aggregate amount of leverage. As the hon. Member for Nottingham East (Chris Leslie) has rightly said, if that overall leverage were to be set for the system as a whole, the regulator would still need to interpret that bank by bank. Some banks would be super-prudent and some would be straining at the other end of the spectrum and might be under special measures with the regulator to try to get their balance sheets into shape.
My particular worry at the moment is that it is never easy managing the transition. We would all be delighted to wake up tomorrow and discover that all the banks are super-safe, but if the price of getting to that stage too quickly is no growth in the economy or, worse still, the onset of another recession because the banks cannot finance the recovery, that would be a bad idea. Many of us would like to see the banks get to better ratios by writing more profitable business and generating more legitimate and sensible levels of profit, rather than having the regulator run the risk of moving too quickly to demand that they have much better ratios. The banks would then have to achieve those better ratios by not writing any new business and by trying to get old loans back ever more quickly from businesses that might find it difficult to repay them. Some of those banks, not being very profitable, could not trade themselves out of the difficulties that they found themselves in.
We also need to be conscious of what is happening globally, because although we should not chase the rest of the world if it has a group of regulators that are being far too generous and wish to re-enact the boom-type crisis of the previous decade—I do not think that we are in that position any more; I think that the regulators of the world are all generally trying to be more cautious—we need to ensure that we do not do anything in Britain that is particularly penal. What we need in order to have a prosperous economy is banks with sufficient profit, reserves and capital to be able to finance a normal recovery. It is very unpopular in this country to speak up for banks making profits at the moment, or indeed at any time, but it is important that they generate reasonable working profits, because that is the best way to make them more solvent.
Mr David Ruffley (Bury St Edmunds) (Con): Is my right hon. Friend as unconvinced as I am by the relatively arbitrary figure of 4% being preferable to 3% for the leverage ratio? Like him, I believe that, if there is going to be any tightening on capital adequacy or leverage, it should be done when the recovery is more surely under way, and 3% is preferable to the 4% recommended by the Vickers commission and the parliamentary commission.
Mr Redwood: I think that I agree with my hon. Friend. What I am suggesting is that I would like to get closer to 4% and further away from 3% by growth, and I think that that could be inferred in Labour’s new clause, because I noticed that the hon. Member for Nottingham East (Mr Chris Leslie) wisely did not pledge himself firmly to 4%. Although he might secretly want 4%, like the rest of us he is probably wise enough to know that, although it might be nice to have 4% in due course, to lurch straight to a target that some big banks could not meet might be very damaging to the economy.
Neil Parish (Tiverton and Honiton) (Con): One of the problems at the moment, as I know from my constituency, is that some companies are still finding it difficult to get money from banks, so the higher the leverage requirement, the more the banks will say that they have to keep the capital and cannot lend it. I agree with my right hon. Friend entirely that we have to be very careful about how we move from 3% to 4%, because otherwise it is companies and growth that will suffer.
Mr Redwood: I think that we have wonderful agreement across the Chamber on this, which might hearten the Minister (Mr Greg Clark). We would be happier with 4% than with 3% in general terms, but we do not want to get there too quickly if that means a further jolt to expectations and confidence and further actions by banks to pull back loans, rather than financing the recovery that we clearly need from them.
Mr Andrew Love (Edmonton) (Lab/Co-op): One of the banking commission’s recommendations was that that should be devolved to the regulator to decide and that we should not set a target or a figure. The Government seem to be resisting that, and for the reasons that have been outlined in relation to growth and living standards. What does the right hon. Gentleman think about the proposal to give that to the regulator earlier than the Government suggest?
Mr Redwood: I think that a Government have to take responsibility for the big calls on economic policy. They can take very good advice from independent regulators and the Bank of England, and sensible Chancellors take good advice, but ultimately it is the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Prime Minister of the day who have their names on all that, and the electorate will expect them to be responsible. I think that people believe in independent central banks and independent regulators up to the point where they get it wrong, and then they look to politicians to take the blame. We have just been through a period when the banking regulator, by its own admission, got it very visibly wrong.
Mr Love: The Government are suggesting that the regulators will get it wrong in 2018, and the commissions say that they will get it wrong a little sooner. Is this not an argument about timing and when the economy will be out of its current difficulties?
Mr Redwood: It is important that we should have proper discussion and informed debate, taking the best advice, so that we can try to get things right for a change. We owe it to all our electors and the economy generally to try to get the matter right.
Time is not generous, so I will be brief. My worry is that, under the previous Labour Government and in the early days of the coalition, we were running a strange policy in which, on the one hand, the Bank of England was trying to depress the vehicle’s accelerator by creating a lot of extra money and saying, “We really need to get some of this money out there to do some good in the economy.” On the other hand, the banking regulator was depressing the vehicle’s brake, saying, “No, you can’t possibly spend that money to create more credit and do more things. The priority is for the banks to sit on the money to have better cash and capital ratios. They probably need to wind down their loan books, which we think are too big.” My observation is that if we try to drive a vehicle with one foot on the accelerator and one on the brake, the brake normally wins.
Mr Ruffley: As has been mentioned already, some in the Bank, including Sir Mervyn King, argued that insufficient lending is a consequence of insufficient capital. I put that to Mr Bailey a few days ago in the Treasury Committee. I asked him about the net new lending level now compared with when funding for lending began last August, and he said that it was flat. Is that not evidence for his proposition that we cannot have tighter adequacy requirements on capital and lots more new lending? The figures show that lending is flat.
Mr Redwood: Indeed. That point also shows that we need banks to be profitable—particularly RBS, which is still largely state owned. Until the bank is making profits, its capital ratios will not improve quickly enough and it will then not be in a position to lend the money that the Government would like it to. The taxpayer would be grateful if it could be more profitable, because our shares would be worth more, which would be in the general interest.
I conclude by making the same point to the Minister. Yes, I want us to get to stronger banks with tighter ratios, but I want us to get there through growth and growth in bank profits—particularly for HBOS and RBS, in which we have a large state stake and whose results have been disappointing for a number of years. If we can get to that happy position, we can have a bit of growth and some more profitability and then the regulator will have to have a sensible conversation with the banks; it will say that some of the money has to be put into cash and capital so that they are stronger. We will be the better for that.