Wednesday, 27 March 2013

Labour Is Still Pushing Financial Capitalism

When Gordon Brown (remember him?) repeatedly proclaimed the "end of boom and bust" he was declaring his belief - along with that of his fellow group-thinkers - that capitalism had found a way to become sustainable. But his support for unbridled growth in everything from investment banking to the Private Finance Initiative eventually revealed he was hooked on financial capitalism, rather than the 'real' capitalism of employment and productivity. Look at how ISAs, for example, have become a drain on the 'real economy'.

Ed Milliband has been trying to repair Labour's image with some lipstick apologies here and there, but old habits die hard.

Recently, the party released "An Enterprising Nation", a report by its Small Business Taskforce. To be fair, there are some good insights into the problems faced by small business, as you would expect from the membership of the taskforce. But, surprisingly, the report contains no proposals for short term solutions, or even medium term solutions. One suspects that either the collective intelligence had already fed all those ideas into the government, or the left wing political establishment doesn't grasp the need to foster an environment in which new businesses can start and thrive today.

Academic as they may be, perhaps the worst of Labour's long term ideas is that of a US-style Small Business Administration. It's an idea I first heard from them in November 2011. And as I pointed out then, the SBA programme had already gained a somewhat unhealthy reputation through David Einhorn's book "Fooling Some of the People All of the Time." Heavy application of the Labour lipstick has now branded this idea the "Spark Umbrella" (a nod to the many local German savings banks, or sparkassen, to which this programme actually bears no resemblance).

Basically, the idea is to saddle the UK with 20 lending vehicles, or "Sparks", funded with £10m of public money (naturally) and £90m drawn, no doubt, from the traditional City suspects. Each Spark would fund its lending to local businesses by selling the loans to the "Spark Umbrella" which would in turn finance the loan purchases by issuing bonds to investors eager to package those bonds into  another set of bonds to sell to... anyone stupid game enough to buy them.

The only way not to end up carrying the can for this, would be to emigrate.

But the UK already has an artificial, publicly subsidised channel for small business lending that limits innovation and competition in the retail financial markets. It's run by the UK's major banks. So we don't need another publicly guaranteed channel to crowd-out sustainable private alternatives. 

I mean, who would start a local lending business knowing that the government was about to launch a publicly funded competitor?

The government should foster an environment in which the private sector can generate alternative finance options, not simply create markets that are ultimately underwritten by the taxpayer.

The fundamental flaw in the Spark Umbrella is its reliance on securitisation (or vertical credit intermediation) to try to overcome the riskier nature of small business lending. That model is hugely expensive in terms of issuing and underwriting bonds that are prone to being mis-priced, particularly in riskier markets, as we have seen. It also creates huge scope for moral hazhard, and traditional financial institutions, intermediaries and speculators are likely to be the only potential winners - as Einhorn's book reveals. There is certainly no guarantee that the loans to small businesses will be competitive with other potential alternatives.

Anyone pointing to the US for solutions also has to understand that, like Germany, it enjoys a much more varied set of small business funding options than the UK, as Breedon reported. So it's possible that the SBA won't have crowded-out US private finance businesses in the way that Spark Umbrella would in our bank-dominated market. 

It's also worth noting that Spark Umbrella is purely debt focused, whereas only 3% of UK small businesses finance themselves by issuing shares.  

Of course, we already have a rapidly growing set of alternative financial services platforms that are beginning to solve the problems that the Spark Umbrella will not. Peer-to-peer lending and crowd-investing provide finance to borrowers and entrepreneurs in small amounts directly from many people at competitive rates from the outset, using both debt and equity finance. There is no need to create new markets for these platforms to grow. However, the government has been dragging its heels on the removal of regulatory barriers and perverse incentives, and that does represent an opportunity for opposition parties. 

True, the government has directed some of the Business Finance Partnership funds through peer-to-peer finance platforms. But that funding goes directly into the businesses who borrow - not through countless intermediaries in the financial markets. Labour needs to recognise the difference.

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