Why breaking up the banks is not the solution to the UK’s economic woes

8 02 2011

 

 

 

 

 

 

*This is a seconding speech to be made at this event alongside Kitty Ussher of Demos against Phillip Blond, the so called ‘Red Tory’

The truth is that poor profitability in productive industries fed the Wall Street monster; that is why it has had so much money to play with. Sean Collins 

The argument for breaking up the big banks, to separate investment banking from retail banking, is based on a flawed analysis of the underlying causes of the financial crisis and the recession which followed. While I hold no brief for the financial sector, the public campaign to break them up is based more out of a desire for revenge than a clear understanding of what needs to be done to make our economy dynamic.

The financial boom and bust was not the product of risky behaviour by bankers, something that those who argue for the break up generally contend. Rather it was the outcome of government sponsored credit expansion policies, here and elsewhere. Low growth rates were artificially stimulated by easy credit policies. The banks were certainly complicit in this behaviour as executors of a strategy of bolstering consumption instead of investment, but they were not the cause. The banks have become scapegoats for the recession, accused by many of the same politicians who encouraged them to keep on lending when times were good.

The fault for the crisis lay with those who believed that a consumption based credit boom could continue forever. We can now see how wrong that belief is. But the real problem facing the UK economy is now laid bare. It is not insufficient consumption that is our problem, but lack of productive investment, in all types of businesses and also in the basic infrastructure of our country, in its roads, railways and power stations. Money, the most fungible of all substances, will continue to flow to where the biggest profits can be made whatever walls are built to stop it. As long as there is no profit to be made in productive investment, money will inflate the next bubble instead.

Breaking up the banks will not help to solve this problem of under investment, and the disruption to banking that would ensue may even hinder it. We need the banks to do their job of lending more effectively than they presently are. Breaking them up is likely to hinder not help that process.

Military thinkers are often criticised for always trying to fight the last war. It would be a mistake for us to now want to focus on what happened in the past rather than what needs to happen in the future. We need to forget about revenge on the bankers and focus instead on the huge task of recovering growth in our economy. The constant harping on about banks and bankers has acted as a giant displacement activity. Being envious about bonuses is far easier than working out how to solve the growth problem. Fantasies about a return to some mythical past when small businesses ruled the roost will not help us to prosper in a globalised economy. It is time to let the bankers get on with their jobs. Instead of backward looking banker bashing we should be working out how we can make this a successful country in the 21st century.