Yesterday, the Shadow Chancellor gave a speech outside the Bank Of England on the tenth anniversary of the Lehman collapse. I will argue that his remarks do not display a good understanding of how The City works. All quotations below are from his speech.
“The key lesson is this: never let the finance sector become the masters of the economy when they should be the servants of the economy” *
This is a misconception. Finance is never either the master or the servant of the economy so it would be impossible to change it’s status in this regard. The way corporate finance works is not that different to getting a mortgage to buy a house. This is true in several ways. Firstly, if you never buy a house, you never need the finance and you never talk to a bank. That’s up to you. So that doesn’t look like a master or servant relationship.
The second element of the analogy is that if you get a mortgage, there will be conditions attached. The most important ones will be around debt service and security. Debt service means that if you borrow money, you will have to pay it back and you will have to pay interest on it until you have paid it back. Security means that no one will lend you £1,000,000 to buy a house unless that debt is secured on the house. So if you default on the loan, the bank takes your house. Again, this is just contractual and reasonable and does not mean that the bank is either your servant or your master. It is a contractual counterparty.
Corporate finance is the same. If companies want to borrow, there are conditions they have to satisfy. No one forces them to borrow. If they don’t like the terms, they can just walk away. Or they can access alternative sources of funds, such as bond markets. There are conditions there as well of course. It still doesn’t seem to make much sense to say that companies are “servants” of the bond markets.
Similarly, countries are not required to borrow money in the international bond markets. Norway has a net surplus because it has wisely saved much of its oil income. The UK is currently not running a deficit — amazingly enough — but in the past, it has borrowed heavily. The total debt will be £1,840bn as of March 2019. All of that debt also comes with conditions though in that case not very many. You have to pay interest and principal. Again, the choice is yours and, as said, currently the UK is not borrowing any further. No master/servant relationship there.
Reuters also report** that McDonnell said that “ordinary people were still paying the price for the crisis through falling living standards and cuts to public services, and a Labour government would redress the balance.”
There have definitely been falling living standard and cuts to public services. There was definitely also a global financial crisis. But there needs to be some link between the two for McDonnell’s point to stand. The collapse of Lehman cost the UK taxpayer nothing. McDonnell can only mean the bailout of RBS. This definitely cost the UK taxpayer. Arguably, a bank needing to be bailed out is the only reason to care about what they get up to. If they lose a lot of shareholders money, that is no one else’s problem. The only thing worse than bailing out RBS was not bailing it out.
The bailout of RBS amounted to £45bn. The Government spent that amount on buying shares. It still holds a lot. It has made a loss of £4bn on what it has sold so far. It will doubtless make further losses on future sales. However, these amounts are simply trifling when compared to government expenditure. Welfare spending will be £115bn in 2019 alone. So it is not the case that the RBS bailout contributed in any meaningful way to public sector spending cuts.
What did cause that was the government’s income — which is entirely sourced from taxation of the private sector — declining. And what caused that was a global recession. That was quite plausibly caused by the events of 2008 including the subsequent credit crunch.
But how will Labour “redress this balance?” Will it force banks to lend? They are private sector firms. Will it replace them with public sector banks? The record there is not good. Spain had a network of Caixas: local banks run by local worthies such as trade unionists and priests. They were massively corrupt and had to be bailed out having funded a large number of white elephant projects.
Meeting with bankers and asset managers, McDonnell said:
“You’ll get a decent rate of return but we’re not being ripped off anymore. Ripped off by speculation, privatisation, job cuts, exploitation of workers.”***
This is a claim that the government received a bad deal as a result of several activities.
Speculation is betting that an asset’s price will move in a particular way. It is not obvious what the government’s involvement would be in that or why it should care. If you suggest that RBS needed to be bailed out because it had “speculated” on subprime mortgage bonds, you need to explain why it is speculation to invest in Aaa securities.
Privatisation is a source of funds for the government. There no obvious way for it to be ripped off by doing that, unless it sells an asset for a low price. Which again, no one forces it to do. Perhaps McDonnell means PFI. That is also excellent value for money if the contracts are drafted correctly.
Job cuts: I have no idea what McDonnell means here. Obviously I understand what a job cut is, bit what is McDonnell proposing? That the government will regulate firing? That is bizarre and generally results in a lack of hiring because you don’t take people on if you have to keep them forever even if they are incompetent, corrupt or don’t turn up.
Exploitation of workers: so what is that exactly? And why is it not adequately addressed by the current regulations such as employment tribunals?
It does not appear as though any useful answers to the crisis are to be found in McDonnell’s remarks.
**, *** ibid.