Today Ed Miliband made a speech on policy in UK banking. There is much wrong with that market and important reforms should involve ensuring that the providers of capital to banks always bear the costs of failure whilst the bureaucratic nature of regulation is reduced. However, Miliband’s speech appeared to hit all the wrong notes (the full speech had not been published at the time of writing). For instance, I can find no evidence at all for his assertion: ‘Of course, financial services are an important industry in itself. But for an industry that calls itself a “service”, it has been an incredibly poor servant of the real economy, not just since 2010 – or 2008 – but for decades in this country.’
Indeed, his argument looks especially strange when you look at his proposals. He does not want competition at the margins with a few small ‘challenger’ banks but new large banks. He complains about a banking market in which five banks control 85 per cent of the market and suggests that the same problems exist as in the energy market (in which there are six companies with a large share of the market). So, what is the right number of companies exactly? Clearly not five, or even six. Is it seven or eight? And how can we get to a banking market where eight companies rather than five control the lion’s share of the market? It is something that would be impossible to achieve in practice through state regulation.
The key policy proposal seems to be a cap on market share through a requirement to sell off branches once market share reaches a given level. This seems to be designed to reduce competition and customer service. The likely response by the banks is that they will sell off the least-used branches and thus reduce branch coverage. However, the proposal will undermine competition. What will happen when a bank nears the statutory limit on the share of the market? Tesco has been a market leader amongst supermarkets in recent years. Its market share increased to nearly 30 per cent simply because it was better than the rest. Now, its market share is falling again as new entrants (Lidl and Aldi) and niche players (Waitrose) expand and provide for customers’ changing needs. Imagine if Tesco’s market share had been capped at 25 per cent. What would its response have been as it reached that market share? Presumably it would have put up prices and/or reduced service levels. The idea that a statutory limit on size would make good performers perform better is at best counterintuitive and certainly unproven.
But what about the assertion that the industry performs badly? Well, a host of studies certainly do not confirm that hypothesis. A study by Dutch academics has the UK banking industry the fourth best in the EU (after excluding two countries with insufficient observations) and two of the better performers are Switzerland and Luxembourg which are special cases. Another study does show British banks providing much less capital to smaller businesses than their EU counterparts, but the UK also has a much larger market in non-bank finance – that has always been the case. A further study suggests that profit margins are around average for British banks but net interest margins are very, very low by international comparisons. This is the difference between interest rates on deposits and other forms of finance used to fund lending and interest rates on lending, so it is a good indication of whether customers are getting a good deal. A high margin means that customers are paying much more for a mortgage than they are getting on deposits. Insofar as margins have increased in the UK, government schemes such as Funding for Lending have been at least partially responsible as has the huge increase in bank capital regulation.
Of course, there have been some constraints on competition in recent years and not just in the form of Funding for Lending and bank capital regulation: Ed Miliband sat in a cabinet that encouraged the takeover of HBOS by Lloyds. We also desperately need innovation. But innovation does not come as a result of stopping the best performing firms from expanding. Innovation comes from lowering barriers to entry. New banks always complain about regulatory barriers to entry; financial regulators have decided to regulate the new forms of finance (crowd funding and peer-to-peer lending) to make them less innovative and competitive. As ever, the politicians need to be more introspective and consider the fact that it may be their own obsession with regulation and intervention that is the cause of the problem.
An earlier version of this article was published on ConservativeHome.