After months of hand wringing the government yesterday summoned the nation’s banking bosses for a “robust” discussion about lending.
The Chancellor Alistair Darling called the meeting in an attempt to persuade senior executives from banks such as HSBC, Barclays, Lloyds and Royal Bank of Scotland to discover why businesses were still struggling to access credit and when they could, why it remained so expensive.
For many in the business community, it is a conversation that has been put off for long enough.
When the government pumped tens of billions of pounds into the banking system earlier this year there was an expectation that once their balance books had been firmed up, they would pass on this largesse to the consumer.
But the statistics seem to suggest otherwise. While the British Bankers Association claims that lending has grown by £391 million in June and 50,000 new businesses have been supported by High Street lenders, the influential Commons committee states that overall lending is in fact down by almost six per cent.
Regardless of which statistic one chooses to focus on, the undoubted reality – both statistically and anecdotally – is that small businesses are continuing to suffer in post-credit crunch Britain.
The most telling comment from the Chancellor following yesterday’s meeting however – and one that is likely to raise the ire of many a small businessman – is that ministers cannot just step in and force banks to lend money.
Now, nobody is suggesting that banks or anyone else should be lending money to basket case companies, but it is widely accepted that many a viable and successful company would be sunk without access to credit – think Jaguar Land Rover for one.
But for the government to have sunk the nation into a decade of austerity to bail out a reckless banking system, without any influence as to how that money is spent other than the occasional “robust” talking, seems supine at best and utterly incompetent at worst. And unfortunately it is a trend that is being repeated across the sector, both here and across the Atlantic.
The tears had barely dried for the woes visited on the investment banking community when Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs both posted multi-billion pound profits and the recruiters were out in force offering eye-watering incentives as the City and Wall Street merry-go-round cranked back up to full speed.
That a strong City and banking system is essential for a healthy economy is not in doubt, but at the moment it looks like the taxpayer is being taken for a fool.