The recently released Vickers Report on Banking Reform in the UK is a dodge. Carving up banks is decidedly NOT what the nation should be focused on currently.
At a juncture where the economy is so dire, where jobs are so scarce, and growth is not on the horizon, can we afford to take our eye off that ball? If I had to choose between strong banks and a strong economy, I'd have to chose the latter. Curiously, there is no correlation between the two. You can make banks infinitely strong if they don't lend. But access to capital actually is one of the defining characteristics of a first world country. Entrepreneurs in Zimbabwe, Philippines, Peru, Mexico struggle to get bank debt. This shouldn't be the case in the United Kingdom.
As NESTA the Innovation Agency in the UK has shown through their research, 6% of all high growth businesses create 54% of all new jobs. So we know that getting the economy back on track requires us to give a lot of attention to those SME's in the 6% category. They need capital right now. I'm very skeptical that all of the lending targets which the banks are saying have been met have indeed been met. Particularly with those banks that the UK taxpayer owns, we should be providing forensic evidence to the citizenry on how they are tracking to these lending targets.
What we should be focusing on is getting our house in order. If we are in a position of strength, then we can withstand whatever shock comes our way. The real tragedy is that during the sunny days of 1997 to 2007, we didn't build a national surplus. That's why the banking crisis of 2008 hit the UK so hard.
There will always be up's and down's in capitalism. However the next crisis hits us - what we know - is that it will be different than the last one. On the 16th of September, Kweku Adoboli, a rogue trader apparently in UBS, was accused of fraud and illicit trading. This appears to be a massive failure of management at UBS. These kinds of awful situations will not go away just because we ringfence retail banks from investment banking. They need to be dealt with by strong and forensic management.
You can't regulate a global financial services industry at the national level. This is not to say that we are powerless in the face of a dangerous banking industry.
But the current attempts to ringfence retail and investment banking will fail to stop banking crises for several reasons. The Vickers Report will be discussed for another couple of years in an attempt to put an execution plan in place. By 2019, the date at which these changes are to be implemented, the world will have changed so dramatically, that the directives will no longer bear any resemblance to the world that they were concocted in.
Innovation always trumps regulation. For these reasons, I doubt that the new banking world that the Vickers Report has put forward will ever see the light of day. What concerns me greatly is how much time and energy will be spent talking about the complexity of this new world while SME's are failing to get funded, and the economy stays in a slump.
There's no question that the financial services industry in the UK is one of our largest industries and one of the best in the world. But I do tire of it constantly being put forward as if it were the only thing we can do at a world-class level. We have a huge wealth of entrepreneurial expertise in the creative industries, pharma/biotech, IT, and we need these industries to be as strong as the banking industry. Until we reshape our vision of finance as a service industry to the real industrialists building out the new markets of media, telecoms, health, construction - many with digital business models at their core, then we won't have a mindset which is shaped to withstand future shocks.
The best way to accomplish this is to enforce serious lending targets for SME's throughout the UK at this time, and allow those SME's to drive tremendous top line revenue into the coffers of the UK Treasury. This growth in the economy will have the neat effect of correcting and rebuilding the UK's balance sheet.
So in a nutshell, we should be doing the following:
- Diversifying as a nation into digital-enabled industries, and losing our obsession with banking
- Stop wasting time considering how to implement Vickers when innovation will render it irrelevant
- Recognise that the SME is the engine of growth in the economy and society, and that we must create the conditions for them to fly; I believe tax policy is under-utilised here, and that SME's should receive significant tax breaks for themselves as well as for their employees to encourage them to hire
- Hold UK taxpayer-owned banks to strict lending targets