There have been two fundamental decisions taken by UK governments in my lifetime that have haunted politics ever since they happened. The first was the decision by Mr Heath and then the British people to join and stay in the EEC. The second was Labour’s decision to drive various commercial banks into financial difficulty, only to then put large sums of taxpayers money into them as new share capital.
This second decision overshadows current public debate. It has made possible the Corbyn challenge, seemingly offering free money to spend on public sector projects by printing cash to pay the bills. Regimes that have tried this elsewhere have usually found it ends in very high inflation, high debts and a crash.
The crash and bail outs of 2007-8 has led to a general dislike of the banks, when flourishing trusted banks are an essential component of any successful free enterprise economy.The bank manager may rarely be liked or loved, but does need to be respected and listened to. Every individual, family and business needs a bank account to settle bills, a savings account if they have a surplus, or an overdraft or mortgage if they need to spend more than they earn for sensible reasons like buying assets.
It has spawned a rash of policies to show different parties are tough on banks – with higher taxes, larger fines, bigger penalties, more regulations. Of course any bank executive or bank breaking the law should be prosecuted and punished appropriately, but turning banks into a cash cow for the government just delays the rebuilding of their balance sheets and limits their capacity to lend more to finance recovery. If taken to extremes it could also lead to their exit from the Uk altogether, with the loss of employment and tax revenue that would bring.
I fully share the popular distaste for taxpayers money being pumped into large businesses that have been and will be rich again.I can’t defend large share subsidies to RBS when the bank carried on paying very large salaries and bonuses to staff at a time when there was an obvious need to control public spending. This single act has encouraged a cynicism about politics.People hear the political attacks on banks and bankers but see the political action of the Labour government pumping in collosal sums without demanding fundamental reform of pay, bonuses and activities as the price of equity support.
At the time I urged the Bank of England to use its normal facilities to lend against security to keep the banks out of grave financial trouble. The Bank instead gave us all a lecture on moral hazard and set its mind against lending. With the FSA the Bank failed to demand that the commercial banks reined in excessive lending early enough. Once it had occurred they then demanded it be sorted out more quickly than was possible, and made their worries public to make runs on the weakest banks likely. The crisis was not just bad commercial banking but also dreadful Central banking.
Once the publicity created the crash, the government then caved in and gave large sums in new capital. Instead they should have gone for controlled liquidation, propping and supporting the deposit base and the general commercial activities that were crucial with loans, and demanding the sale of the more exotic and overseas assets to help slim the groups and pay some of the bills. Shareholders and bondholders should have taken the hit, not taxpayers.
Allowing competing private sector companies subsidised capital without demanding reform was a moral and political disaster. It has led directly to a feeling that different laws apply to the banks and to an attitude which thinks that one bad policy mistake justifies more such mistakes. It has led directly to some assuming that money printing is now acceptable and could work on a larger scale for wider purposes. It has also led to a new hostility between the many voters and one of the nation’s leading economic activities which still pays a lot of the bills. I will look at its consequences for the two main parties in a future post.