How to get credit flowing? Nationalise the banking sector, say Tories

(Only kidding about the Tories bit! The rest of it is true, but please, stay with me…)

Wonko, for one, is not happy. No wonder: Paul Mason noted that on Friday

Wrekin Construction – a business with £50m of orders reportedly on its books – went into administration. It told the press that RBS had refused to extend an overdraft: it needed £3m. Now 600 civil engineering and railway construction jobs are at risk – and we’re supposed to be in the middle of a government-driven civil engineering boom.

It was partly Paul Mason’s insightful post that made me pen the following comment atDuncan’s Economic blog

Arguably the best way to get credit flowing again is for the banks to be nationalised. I think this worked in Sweden quite well and here’s why:

Commercial decisions will still be made on who to lend to and at what cost to the lender – but public ownership will get around the one big obstacle, which is that the people running banks are looking to provide returns to the owners and so make decisions on lending in a different way. Instead of being cautious about lending because they are mindful that their job is to give a return to investors, they will be more eager to lend, but nonetheless mindful of risks, etc. We can see the government has reversed its previous policy with Northern Rock.

With public ownership it’s not about the sectional interest of shareholders (or even, the government as shareholder) but about the interest of the whole of our economy in the long term – ensuring that productive enterprises get the financing they need.

The big problem with all of this will be the EU’s rules on these matters. Sweden’s banking crisis and it’s recovery happened prior to the country becoming a member of the European Union. The political right likes to paint the EU as some kind of warmed-up Soviet Union, but in fact EU institutions would probably oppose nationalisation of the private banking sector on several grounds (competition rules, the rights of shareholders, etc.).

Now, it’s the kind of measure that might need EU approval, and might take a damaging length of time (look at the govt assistance to our car manufacturers – it was held up while the European Commission vetted it). But the government will have to be tough and say it will take the consequences from the Commission.

As to the future ownership in the banking sector, I think we would be wise to learn the lessons of this crisis: the shareholder-as-owner has proven dangerous.

Which financial institutions have been responsible and have not needed public money to bail them out? The building societies, owned by their customers: no one expects from building societies anything other than boring banking – no financial wizardry. Indeed, many of the failed institutions were once owned by their customers – Bradford and Bingley, Halifax, Northern Rock, etc.

As a customer and member of a building society, I don’t ask much more than a good service, either as a lender or saver; I certainly don’t demand of the people running it that they come up with more ways of making money. Now it might be argued that this kind of old-fashioned high-street banking doesn’t apply to the financing of bigger businesses – but my question would be, why not?

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