Tuesday, 2 October 2012

Careful What You Incentivise

Two things seem to be choking the flow of money to people and small businesses in the UK: broken regulation and perverse incentives. Yet there's a tendency to focus more on regulation, and to only see the obvious incentives - like bankers bonuses. Some innovative self-regulation in retail finance has been welcomed by the UK government, and banking reform creeps ahead. But all this could prove futile if problems with incentives are not also addressed. To fix those, we need to look below the surface at the more fundamental incentives at play in the financial system. In particular, we need to understand the extent to which the likes of ISA schemes and pension investment rules are limiting competition and innovation in financial services and inhibiting economic growth. I've summarised some recent debate on this below, and added some comments on the government's latest defence of the ISA scheme. I'd welcome your thoughts.

Some of the perverse incentives have been outlined to government by tax colleagues previously (in Annex 3 to this document). In essence, the contention has been that certain tax relief selectively favours banks and the suppliers of regulated investments to the detriment of innovation and competition. In particular, the tax free ISA system funnels ordinary people's savings into UK bank deposits on a vast scale, which the banks then fail to lend. This effectively discourages and inhibits those same people from diversifying, one alternative being to extend finance directly to other creditworthy people and businesses through peer-to-peer platforms. As a result, it's been suggested that the ISA system should be extended to cover such direct finance. Indeed, in his response to the Red Tape Challenge, Mark Littlewood, Director-General of the Institute of Economic Affairs and a 'Sector Champion' said:
" is surely worth noting that the present format and definition of the ISA wrap may have raised “barrier to entry” problems for new financial products and it may be beneficial to review these to stimulate innovation in the sector."
But the impact on innovation is merely the tip of the iceberg. It's the impact on the wider economy that must be understood.

There is overwhelming evidence that the UK's small businesses are cash-starved. They represent 99.9% of all UK enterprises and are responsible for 60% of private sector employment. Their output is critical to the UK's economic growth, which has stalled. Yet they face a funding gap of £26bn - £52bn over the next 5 years. Critically, the four banks which control 90% of the small business finance market are lending less and less to them. This is a red flag. You might think from their enormous market share that these banks would consider small business lending to be very important and a retreat from that market unwise. But, as the economist Richard Werner has pointed out, the reality is that only about 10% of the overall credit issued by our banks goes to productive firms. The other 90% goes to fund deals involving financial assets which don't count towards economic growth figures. So for these banks small business lending is actually a sideshow. They clearly make their money elsewhere.

Yet the ISA scheme had lured savings and investments of £391bn from UK adults by the April 2012, half of which is in cash deposits in these same banks. And they pay nothing for it - a paltry 0.41% in interest after 'teaser rates' expire, according to a 'super complaint' by Consumer Focus in 2010. 

In other words, the government appears to be incentivising workers to plough their savings into banks which virtually ignore the sector on which most of those same workers depend for their income. 

Contrast this with the position in Germany, where 70% of the banking sector comprises hundreds of small, locally-controlled banks who provide 40% of all loans to SMEs.  In an ironic twist, the UK government now sees peer-to-peer platforms as a similar conduit for a new German-style government-directed lending programme. But it appears never to have openly considered that the limited scope of the ISA scheme is part of the problem. 

In March, the goverment defended the narrow scope of the ISA scheme for the reasons extracted here. In September, the government gave a different response (see p. 13 here). In the hope of sparking wider debate on the issues, I've set out the current defence of the status quo below (my additions/comments in square brackets). I welcome any comments.
"HM Treasury believes that there is not a strong enough case for [making bad debt relief available to P2P lenders], as creating an exception would add complexity to the tax system and is difficult to justify when other [unspecified] forms of investment do not qualify for bad debt relief. Moreover, the current tax treatment of P2P investors is not necessarily a barrier to further expansion, as witnessed by the impressive growth in the industry in recent years.
...HM Treasury does not believe that P2P loans are suitable for inclusion in ISAs. The risk profile of P2P lending is too high [compared to what? cash ISAs? stocks and shares ISAs?], and it is unlikely that the platform can satisfy some of the [unspecified] features essential to the operation of ISAs.
Consumers tend to view ISAs as a relatively safe and simple investment vehicle [this fails to distinguish between cash ISAs and stocks/shares ISAs. And are they safe?]. ISA investments are thought of as relatively low-risk, and consumers should be able to get access to their funds whenever they wish. This is less likely to be the case with P2P lending than with existing ISA Qualifying Investments [this could be cured by permitting secondary markets in P2P loans]. 
Similarly, existing Regulations require ISAs to be operated through an ISA Manager [regulations could include P2P platforms], who invests through persons or firms who are authorised by the FSA, and thus have access to the FSCS [this does not mean you can't lose the principal in your stocks/shares ISAs, or stop banks paying 0.41% interest on cash ISAs]. As far as we are aware, current P2P lending platforms are not conducive to the ISA Manager role, are not regulated by the FSA, and do not offer Financial Services Compensation Scheme (FSCS) protection [any or all of which could be changed by regulation].
Finally, in order to be included in an ISA, P2P loans will require to be listed as a Qualifying Investment. Qualifying Investments are identified generically. It would be extremely difficult to restrict a generic description such as “loan” only to loans made via P2P lending platforms [but none of the qualifying investments are so generic, being limited by reference to 'banks', 'building societies', 'recognised stock exchanges' etc., so why not by reference to 'P2P platforms'?]. Exclusion from the ISA wrapper does not make this type of lending exceptional; rather, it puts it on the same footing as investment in stocks and shares issued by unlisted companies [how are these activities equivalent?]."
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