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The Banking Reform Act is rearranging the deck chairs on the neoliberal Titanic

A new report from the Centre for Labour and Social Studies highlights the failure of the Banking Reform Act to deal with any of the problems at the core of the 2007/8 collapse. Here, its author explains what's really going on.

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Some six years after the banking crash, the UK has wheeled out its answer – the Banking Reform Act. Some deckchairs have been rearranged, but little attention has been paid to the key drivers of the crisis.

The biggest financial crisis has coincided with the rise of neoliberalism, which emphasised faith in free markets and light-touch regulation. The notion of competition is a key concept and is applied to every sector of society, including corporations, regions, government departments, hospitals, and universities because this somehow secures efficient allocation of resources and opens the door to wealth and riches. Neoliberalism provides everyday understandings of what it means to be successful. It reconstructs individuals as competitive beings engaged in the endless pursuit of private wealth and consumption. In common with other sectors of society, individuals are expected to have strategies for meeting performance targets and be rewarded accordingly. Thus, performance related pay for executives has become endemic. A necessary condition for the operation of markets and pursuit of self-interest is that all individuals, including business enterprises, need to be constrained by social norms and regulatory structures. But this has not been high on the neoliberal agenda because the state is bad and inefficient and has to be rolled-back, and the self-correcting markets would restore some mythical equilibrium. Well, it has not turned out that way.

The fault lines of neoliberalism have long been evident. The mid-1970s secondary banking crash highlighted empires built on fraud. The state dutifully bailed out banks, property and insurance companies. In 1984, Johnson Matthey Bank collapsed under the weight of fraud and the Bank of England organised a rescue. In 1995, Barings Bank collapsed due to fraud. The twentieth century’s biggest banking frauds took place at the Bank of Credit and Commerce International (BCCI). In July 1991, the Bank of England closed BCCI. Some 1.4 million depositors lost some part of their savings. In an environment of weak regulation, banks continued to pick customers’ pockets by selling useless, pensions, mortgages and saving schemes.

Neoliberalism, remained the key philosophy for governments. The 2008 banking crash showed that banks made vast amount of money from running illegal cartels, money laundering, insider trading, tax dodges, manipulation of interest rates, selling abusive products, misleading investors and consumers. Markets celebrated higher corporate profits and did not ask any questions about the quality of profits, or the social consequences of banking practices. Bank executives collected vast sums of money from performance related contracts.

Markets did not come forward to rescue banks. It was the state, which has been restructured rather than rolled-back, which bailed out banks. Under the weight of neoliberal ideologies it is now less concerned about the redistribution of income and wealth, labour rights, or the provision of decent healthcare, education, pensions and social infrastructure. It has shunned any attempt to democratise corporations or enhance their public accountability. Its major purpose is now to guarantee corporate profits and socialise losses, a kind of reverse socialism has been institutionalised.

The UK state has committed some £976 billion of loans and guarantees support distressed banks and also handed over another £375 billion under its quantitative easing programme. During the boom years of 2002 to 2007, the financial sector paid £203 billion in UK corporation tax, national insurance, VAT, payroll taxes, stamp duty and insurance taxes. Between 1991 and 2007, it created around 35,000 additional jobs. But it received vast stacks of money in return. Confidence in the banking sector is maintained through the provision of a taxpayer funded depositor protection scheme which safeguards savings of individuals of up to £85,000. Since March 2009, the state has maintained interest rates at 0.5%, considerably below the rate of inflation. This has robbed pensioners and savers of income and also eroded the real value of savings. The policy has enabled banks to borrow at ultra-cheap rates, lend at high rates, make profits and replenish their balance sheets. The customer base for banks has swelled as the government has persuaded pensioners and social security claimants to receive their payments through bank accounts rather than through the Post Office. The Private Finance Initiative has been a bonanza for banks and other corporations. In 2012, there were over 700 contracts with a capital value of £54.7 billion. The government is committed to repaying £301 billion over the next 25-30 years, a profit of nearly £247 billion.

The Banking Reform Act does not check fat-cattery or speculative practices. The sunlight of democracy and public accountability is an effective antidote to shady practices, but is missing from the Act as it does not connect with neoliberal values. The Act should have separated speculative banking from the rest. To prevent speculators from contaminating the economy, the privilege of limited liability should have been withdrawn from all gambling. Instead of banking elites regulating the banks for the benefit of the industry a Board of Stakeholders, representing a plurality of interests, should have been created to guide the regulator. This Board should not be dominated by the finance industry. In fact, only a minority should come from the industry, thus ensuring that other voices are heard and policies are made by consensus. Its meetings would be held in the open and its minutes and working papers would be publicly available.

Employees, savers and borrowers have long-term interests and should elect directors and vote on their remuneration. Instead, the government is obsessed with shareholders who are often the source of problems. The Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards concluded that “shareholders failed to control risk-taking in banks, and indeed were criticising some for excessive conservatism”. The typical shareholding period in banks is about three months. Shareholders provide only a small amount of risk capital at banks. For example, at Barclays, HSBC, Lloyds Banking Group, Royal Bank of Scotland and Standard Chartered, shareholders provide about 5%, 7%, 5%, 5.5% and 7.25% respectively of total capital. Shareholders are akin to traders and speculators and cannot invigilate bank directors.

In time, the missed opportunities for opening a new chapter in banking regulation will haunt the UK.

About the author

Prem Sikka is Professor of Accounting at the University of Essex.

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