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Time is running out for the UK economy but the banks have managed to walk off with hundreds of billions of pounds in taxpayers' money. When do we get it back?

Time is running out for the UK economy but the banks have managed to walk off with hundreds of billions of pounds in taxpayers’ money. When do we get it back?

I was listening to Gideon George Osborne’s Autumn Statement the other day – and my word, don’t I wish I hadn’t! In between lapses of concentration due to boredom and bursts of sudden fury, depending which idiot pronouncement he was drooling, I had the odd lucid thought, one of which was this:

The financial crisis was caused by bankers. Did anyone ever identify who they were?

It’s a good question and one that I don’t believe has ever been answered. A cursory search reveals no list of British names on the Internet but I don’t think we can blame it all on Fred Goodwin, can we? (Fred ‘the Shred’ was, you’ll recall, stripped of his knighthood due to his role in the banking crisis, as chief executive of the Royal Bank of Scotland)

If nobody else has been named, we can conclude that none of them have been made to account for their actions or pay recompense to those of us who have had to suffer hardships – some extreme – indeed, some fatal – as a result of the foolhardy way they gambled with money that was not theirs and nearly brought the global financial edifice crashing to destruction.

It’s nearly five years since the crash. We can reasonably expect that these people are still in position, still taking home huge bonuses every year (debate among yourself whether they have earned these amounts or not). They have not been held accountable. It seems increasingly unlikely that they ever will.

But their organisations have absorbed huge amounts of public money, paid during the great bailouts of 2008 onwards by the UK Treasury in order to keep them going. It seems to me that these fatcats should be on starvation rations until that debt is paid off but I don’t see that happening. This leads me to my next question:

When are we going to get our money back?

The answer comes to mind immediately: If events continue along the current pattern – never.

That’s not good enough. In fact, it’s downright disastrous for the British economy because we all know by now – and the Autumn Statement confirmed it – that the welfare squeeze and other measures that Gideon has levelled at those of us on low or medium incomes, for the hideous crime of having nothing to do with the banking crisis that led to the recession, isn’t going to make anything better. In fact it can only make matters worse.

Consider fiscal multipliers. Every pound invested by a government in its economy generates more money as it goes through the system. The classic example is investment in construction, which yields more than £2 for every £1 spent. But if you subtract money – for example, by a fiscal squeeze – it follows that the economy suffers a greater loss than just the money that was taken away. I believe writers other than myself have suggested that the planned extra £10 billion welfare squeeze will remove £16 billion from the economy.

Meanwhile the banks, that caused the crisis, are off the hook and free as birds.

I have already stated my belief that the economy needs government investment in order to grow. If that investment took place, people would start making money again and they would logically put it into the banks. At this point, I suggest it would be reasonable to start encouraging the banks to start paying off their debt to us; there could be no argument that repayment would harm their viability as they would be benefiting from new money.

They could start paying a financial transactions tax (FTT) at a rate of 0.1%, applicable to all transactions through the CHAPS (Clearing House Automated Payments System) which is used to make same-day, irrevocable payments. If spent on deficit reduction alone it was envisaged in 2010 that this would halve the deficit by 2013/14. The introduction of the tax at that time would also have fended off overtures of a rise in regressive taxes such as VAT to 20 per cent, which left the most vulnerable in society picking up the bill for the mistakes of the very well-off. It differs from the ‘Robin Hood’ Tax Campaign for a 0.05 per cent tax on banking transactions, as the latter targets a broader range of banking activities. Most of the major EU countries supported such a tax, and on July 18, 2010, the then-head of the IMF, Dominique Strauss Kahn, announced he would back it.

I would also continue levying the Bankers’ Bonus Tax introduced by Alistair Darling in 2009, which raised £2 billion, and extend it to other institutions such as hedge funds and private equity houses, which benefited from the bailout through government-backed guarantees and quantitative easing.

If banks continued to pay excessive bonuses then the tax yield would remain high, accruing a large amount for the Treasury, and a permanent bonus tax could lead to bonus payments being reduced as a way to avoid tax; discouraging the payment of bonuses.

This windfall tax has been replicated in France, where the government warned banks that if they did not obey the strict guidelines on pay they would be excluded from competing for exclusive government contracts.

How about a remuneration cap? This would be a short-term ceiling on total remuneration, given as both cash and share options. This would tackle flagrant high pay, shoring up balance sheets and providing a level playing-field across the banking sector.

The link between excessive pay and the economic crisis is widely acknowledged. Remuneration caps could therefore give greater economic stability to the banking system.

I would also create a High Pay Commission – an open, balanced and thorough examination into pay and income at the top in order to find long term and tested solutions into how better to reduce excessive risk and excessive rewards.

Obviously I would separate banks that engage in ‘retail’ activities from those that engage in ‘investment banking’. I would close that casino because the players use other people’s money. Also, ‘casino’ bankers would be less likely to make riskier choices as they would not have protection from the taxpayer. They would also be regulated, to ensure their actions do not put the economy at risk. I understand this is taking place but I can’t fathom why the government is dragging its feet.

Banks should be encouraged to profit by serving their customers well and collectively providing liquidity and capital to the economy.

These banking regulations would be best enforced multilaterally, by other countries as well as the UK, but this should not stop the UK government taking action on its own.

The disproportionate influence of the financial sector over the UK economy leaves it particularly vulnerable to future crises and we should not allow ourselves to be at the mercy of international consensus.

We know that some automatic opposition to these policies will include fear-mongering that talented individuals will leave Britain in droves and growth will be hit. Evidence indicates this is unlikely but if they want to go, I say, let them. There are plenty more talented people just itching for a chance to take their place.

Others will claim that some tinkering with the system, such as banks planning how they wind-up and toughening up existing rules on capital adequacy and liquidity, will solve all our problems. They won’t. There are some fundamental problems that need to be solved if we are to avoid repeats of this crisis.

Better people than myself have said we must reverse the trend of the past 30 years, where private financial risk has been publicly shared and the gains increasingly privatised.

That’s the truth of it. If we can’t punish the transgressors, we can at least claw back the money they have taken.