Whenever major decisions are taken about the future of the UK, news cameras will be aimed at reporters standing in front of Parliament. But is Parliament really where the key decisions are being made today, or has power shifted down the river to London’s financial sector, the City?
As the last few years have shown, the banking sector can have a serious negative impact on our lives. Leaving it with such a huge and unaccountable degree of power is no more likely to work in the best interests of society or democracy in the future than it has in the past.
Ceding the Power to Create Money to the Banking Sector
In the current system, banks create the vast majority of money in the UK, in the form of the electronic bank deposits that appear in your bank account. They create this money without regard to how much is needed for the economy and society as a whole to operate effectively, and they put over 90% of this money towards activities that do not contribute to the growth of the real economy.
This power to create money causes inflation that insidiously transfers wealth from savers and those who hold their wealth in cash (i.e. the poor and those on medium incomes) to those who are rich enough to hold their wealth in other assets (such as property). Giving private sector banks a monopoly on the creation of money also means that whenever additional money is needed in the economy, only private banks can provide it. In effect the entire money supply must be rented from the banking sector, at great cost to the economy. The creation of electronic money is a service that could be provided by the government at no cost to anyone.
The business model that permits banks to create money—so far from the popular perception of banks as simple intermediaries between savers and borrowers—is inherently unstable and will systematically require periodic taxpayer-funded bailouts. The cost of these bailouts diverts revenue from the activities that the government was elected to do, compromising its ability to fulfil its democratically mandated objectives.
Leaving this power to create money to the private sector creates a serious democratic deficit: a process that many would consider to be the sole prerogative of the state is in the hands of corporations who have no accountability to the wider public and whose interests are completely at odds with those of society as a whole.
Overstating the True Contribution of the Banking Sector
Politicians and policy makers are misinformed about the true contribution of the banking sector because they are only shown the positive side of the sector’s contribution to government finances, i.e. the taxes they pay. The overall contribution of the UK banking sector to the Exchequer is about 6% of overall tax revenues. In the year that the banking sector paid its highest ever tax, the manufacturing sector paid over three times more.
Society is now acutely aware of the direct cost to the taxpayer of bailing out banks but less attention is directed to the hidden subsidies they benefit from, even in the good times. Firstly, because of both implicit and explicit government guarantees, when a bank borrows money it does so at an interest rate lower than it would be able to otherwise. Secondly, by giving up the power to create money the government forgoes an important source of revenue, which results in higher taxes, lower spending or a bigger national debt. Conversely, the banks benefit financially from the power to create money. These hidden subsidies more than outweigh any taxes paid by the banks.
No Accountability to Customers
Unlike pension funds, banks are not required to disclose how they will use their customers’ money. As 97% of the UK’s money supply is effectively held with banks, this allows them to allocate a larger sum of money than either the entire pension fund industry or the elected government itself. Consequently the UK economy is shaped by the investment priorities of the banking sector, rather than the priorities of society.
Just five banks hold 85% of the UK’s money, and these five banks are steered by just 78 board members whose decisions shape the UK economy. This is a huge amount of power concentrated in very few hands, with next to no transparency or accountability to wider society.
The Close Relationship Between Banking & Government
It is impossible to know how much influence the financial sector has over policy but they certainly devote substantial resources to getting it. The financial sector makes large donations to political parties: the Conservative Party is 50% financed by donors associated with the financial industry, and it offers a ‘backstage pass’ to meet the Prime Minister in exchange for a £50,000 annual donation, raising the question of whether ‘cash for access’ is subverting the political process.
Lobbying is a fact of political life and only the most naïve politician would fail to take account of their naturally biased agenda. However, the resources of banking sector lobbyists far exceed those from other sectors and therefore the views of the banking industry may be drowning out those of civil society.
The close relationship between the banking sector and its chief regulator, the FSA, should be worrying, especially given the record of the last few years. The revolving door between the banks and their regulators revolves faster in the UK than in any country other than Switzerland and a former Prime Minister now consults for one of the world’s largest investment banks, for a salary approximately 12 times more than he earned as Prime Minister.
A few economically simple changes to the banking system would return power back to the people and restore some level of democratic control over the economy. These changes are:
- Make banks ask for permission from their customers before they lend out their money.
- Make banks disclose how customers’ money will be invested, so that members of the public can refuse to fund activities that they are not ethically comfortable with.
- Remove the power to create money from the banks and return it to a democratically accountable body.
Making these changes would help redress the democratic deficit in banking and limit the ability of the banking sector to damage society. After the experience of the last few years, these are changes that urgently need to be made.
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