Saturday, 24 September 2011

Move towards some sensible ideas from Samuel Brittan


By Michael Burke

The Financial Times’ veteran economics commentator Samuel Brittan has recently argued for the state’s holdings in the banks to be used as the basis for creating a new state bank focused on productive investment.

Echoing calls from Adam Posen, he argues that the disastrous fall in both the money supply and bank lending needs to be corrected by decisive state action. Posen is perhaps the sole member of the current Bank of England Monetary Policy Committee who understands the gravity of the current situation and is not constrained by official orthodoxy in seeking remedies l.

These are similar ideas as those outlined in the recent pamphlet, ‘A Brighter Economic Vision for Britain. Brittan says his own proposal, ‘...is to use the state-owned banks as the nucleus of Mr Posen’s proposed state lending bank for small and medium enterprises. Who knows what obstacles well-paid lawyers could think up? But in principle this could start next week. The main thing needed would be a Treasury directive to these banks to replace profit maximisation with a requirement to promote economic recovery.’

One reason for the renewed slump in the share price of leading British banks is their exposure to the sovereign debt crisis. Yet Lloyds-TSB Bank, for example has seen the price of its shares fall from 74p at the time of the government’s share-buying programme to 34p as at the close of trading on September 23. This compare to the collapse of RBS’ share price to 22p compared to the government purchase price of 52p – despite the fact that (aside from the US and Britain) Lloyds has no significant exposures to sovereign debt markets at all.

This highlights the fact that the main driver of the slump in banks’ shares is not primarily the debt crisis, severe though that it is. The share prices have collapsed because of economic weakness and the deterioration in the banks’ existing loan book, personal, business, mortgage and other loans.

Therefore it is possible to differ with Brittan’s analysis in two respects. First, the banks’ refusal to lend is driving both the fall in profits and the share price on which it rests. They are not ‘maximising profits’ but hoarding capital in order to preserve it. A government instruction to lend is the only way to break the lending and investment strike. Secondly, it is a widespread misconception that small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) are the key to growth. In reality, outside the personal services sector they mainly provide inputs to much larger firms. Bundling up loans to SMEs will not create the investment demand for smaller firms’ output. The largest firms show no intention of increasing their own investment – which is what is required.

Instead, only government can break the log-jam by initiating investment in housing, in infrastructure, in transport and in education. The private sector would benefit. These contracts would mainly be awarded to large firms but they tend to sub-contract or purchase inputs from SMEs and individuals. It is this process which creates employment at the SMEs.

But this is a disagreement only about the nature and direction of the required policy. The basic thrust of the Brittan analysis is correct. Bank lending and money supply are collapsing along with the banks’ share prices. The banks contain the resources to correct the slump, yet refuse to do so. They are in public ownership. All that is required is a government instruction to fund the large-scale investment that is required to produce a recovery.

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