Ten years after the crash, civil society has come a long way. But much more remains to be done
Ten years ago I spent the summer after graduating waitressing in Cafe Uno in Cambridge. The most political campaign for me that summer was the fact that I was getting paid below minimum wage because they could top up my salary with tips. At the same time, the western world was on the verge of financial collapse that would not only change the course of my future work, but also deliver such a shock to the world order that nothing would ever be the same again.
So what has changed in ten years? I’m guilty of banging the angry drum that nothing has changed, and saying that finance is still totally self-serving. In absolute terms, this is true. The vast majority of new loans continue to pour into financial and property markets, and this hasn’t really changed since the crash. Lending to the productive economy, including SMEs, has not grown. It was the failure to reform the financial sector, and the vacuum of conversation about what must be done, that allowed the conversation to morph into the need for austerity, which was of course completely untrue.
But looking under the bonnet of the headline figures about our stagnating economy, rising food bank use and record high stock prices, there is some good news. We are building an army of voices who didn’t exist ten years ago. The public know that things are not fixed. Today we at Positive Money have released a poll showing 66% don’t think banks work in their interests, and 63% are worried about another crash. The conversation is changing.
Here are ten things that have changed over the past ten years, including some huge achievements, that should be cause for hope and celebration.
1. Occupy captured the public’s imagination
The Occupy movement struck a chord with many of us. It said that the system is unfair and broken, and we need something new. People camped outside St Paul’s, and there were book groups, workshops and lots of other activity that encouraged people to wake up and realise that we need something new. Importantly, it repeatedly made the news, and memes like ‘the 99%’ stuck and exploded across the world. The challenge of Occupy was always going to be ‘how do we take its passion, voice, energy, and impact and channel it into a self-sustaining movement?’. And now, in the years after Occupy, do we avoid saying the inevitable ‘we need another occupy’ whenever a meeting full of activists and campaigners get together?
2. A civil society movement exists
We now have an ecosystem of institutions, campaigners, organisers, thought leaders, and economists focused on reforming the banking and finance sector, and its growth is accelerating. Organisations that were set up before the crash, like Robin Hood Tax and Share Action, have grown in size, profile and impact. New organisations like my own, Positive Money, as well as the Finance Innovation Lab and Finance Watch have established themselves as key NGOs with expertise. Larger NGOs like Oxfam, Friends of the Earth, and WWF have allocated resources towards recruiting people dedicated to looking at the finance sector. Think tanks started work on finance and banking. The New Economics Foundation set up a banking and finance team and have done an awesome amount of research on issues ranging from financial system system resilience to stakeholder banks. IPPR, Demos, and Respublica have all looked at alternative banking models. Work focusing on how people at the sharp end of the finance sector are affected, such as from Responsible Finance and Toynbee Hall, continues to grow. Unions are finding their voice in criticising the financial sector. A coalition of organisations are organising a large event to mark ten years after the crash, which will be taking place on 15th September.
3. Women are leading the movement
Anna Laycock heads up Finance Innovation Lab, Catherine Howarth leads Share Action, Maeve Cohen is the Director of Rethinking Economics, Miatta Fianbullah leads the New Economics Foundation, Faiza Shaheen is the Director of CLASS, Sarah-Jayne Clifton heads up Jubilee Campaign, Jennifer Tankard is the Chief Executive of Responsible Finance, Sian Williams is the Director of Policy at Toynbee Hall, Grace Blakeley at IPPR has been doing some fantastic work on Financialisation and Tax, and the brilliant Christine Berry has been doing excellent work across the movement. This is a fantastic development, which is not totally unconnected to the next point.
4. There is a culture of collaboration and systems thinking
Civil society has always been victim to a human characteristic prevalent in modern society – competition. Starting essentially a new sector and movement, we knew we had to do things differently. Finance and civil society is clearly a David and Goliath situation. If we spend time competing with each other, we won’t be able to move fast enough. That’s why when I joined Positive Money at the end of 2012 I wanted to work with the movement and create a culture of support. So I partnered with Charlotte Millar and Chris Hewett, both then at the Finance Lab (which was set up by three amazing women and a great man) to set up the transforming finance network. An important aspect of creating this collaborative culture was that we have several ‘systems thinkers’ amongst us. Systems thinkers are able to hold uncertainty, hold tensions, have humility, and can adapt, innovate, and most importantly evolve. Donella Meadows’ paper ‘leverage points’ was a key text for us. Systems change attitudes results in less ‘my policy is bigger or better than yours’, and more ‘how can we work together to move our common agenda forward?’
5. The rethinking economics movement is growing strongly too
The crash also triggered a shaking up of the economics establishment. A close relative of the financial reform movement is the rethinking economics movement. As well as fantastic student and university focused organisations like Rethinking Economics, there is a growing number of thinkers writing about how we need to ditch neoclassical economics and be more pluralist in our approach. Even new institutes are being set up such as Mariana Mazzucato’s Institute for Innovation and Public Purpose at UCL.
6. The tax justice movement seized the opportunity to make gains
The shock of the crash, followed by hijacking of the narrative by austerity, presented an opportunity for the tax justice movement. In the UK we saw the flourishing of direct action groups like UKUncut and tax experts like John Christensen and Richard Murphy. Large NGOs also got on board, which allowed it to cut through the public consciousness. This hard work meant that even David Cameron picked up the baton to ensure tax avoidance was clamped down on. A key reason for the success of the tax justice movement was having some key bits of infrastructure in place before the crash, including experts, grassroots activists and large NGOs working on it.
7. More must be done to reform regulation
It would be remiss to write about the last ten years without saying something about what has happened in the world of regulation. Whenever I go on panels to talk about regulation I generally complain about how regulation is a mess. It’s a tricky point of view, because obviously as civil society we all want banks to have greater regulation, but is more regulation good if the premise on which its developed is based on problematic first principles? For example, ring fencing will be in place by January 2019, but it has always been about a false logic that retail banking is safe, while investment banking is the risky side. But the 2007/8 crisis emanated from the retail arm in the first place, so ring fencing wouldn’t stop another crash. Basel III looks at risk-weighting of assets which categorises lending into the productive (or real) economy as high-risk, whilst mortgages are low risk, even though it was mortgage lending that was a key factor in causing the crash
8. The Bank of England is now a risk manager
After the crash the Treasury took positive steps to add financial stability to the Bank of England’s mandate. The Bank now understands that to predict a crash it must look at the system as a whole, rather than just individual banks balance sheets. Its regulatory approach since the crash has been focused on how to ensure a bank can fail without bringing down the whole system, and as such they have been looking at bank bail-in regimes. While it is an important step forward, it doesn’t go far enough to meet the Bank’s mission which is ‘to serve the good of the people of the UK’. If it was to take its mission seriously, it would look at how banking is failing to serve our domestic economy, and how monetary policy has nothing to offer in the event of another crash. Similar to regulation, this approach can be thought of like a ship sailing off a cliff and crashing, and then continuing in the same direction to sail off another cliff, but along the way making sure there is less mess this time. We might be calculating the risk of sailing off the next cliff in a more complex and rigorous way, but we are not thinking about changing direction.
9. Building the new
Buckminster Fuller famously said that ‘to change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.’ Several leaders from civil society’s financial reform movement are now also building the new. Tony Greenham, formerly Director of Banking and Finance at NEF, co-author of ‘Where Does Money Come From?’ and more recently Director of Economics at RSA, is now working full time on developing new co-operative banks in the South-West and London. The Finance Innovation Lab runs a Fellowship developing the leadership capacity and business skills of innovators building a new financial system – one that works for people and planet. Alongside Finance Watch, the Finance Innovation Lab is also sounding the alarm about fintech – which is not all cute and cuddly. We’ve also seen more interest in credit unions, as well as complementary currencies popping up, such as the Bristol Pound.
10. Changing the old
The story of RBS is probably the best example of the challenges associated with changing the old, and of the strong inertia inside the government and regulators. As a result of the emergency bail-out package in October 2008, the British public acquired a majority shareholding in RBS (almost 80%) at a total cost of £45.5 billion. Among the many examples of how RBS fails to serve the UK economy, including consumers and businesses alike, probably the worst is the Global Restructuring Group (GRG). It was found to be deliberately pushing SMEs towards insolvency in order to shore up RBS’ own capital position, in some cases then buying up their assets cheaply. Despite economists, campaigners, and researchers continuing to call on the government to think of alternatives for RBS, namely turning it into a network of regional banks, the government is fixed on selling it back to the private sector at a loss to the public.
Where do we go next?
We must continue to work together by forming alliances and coalitions, increasing our expertise and skills, and building new infrastructure for the movement. We must appreciate our different tactics and theories of change, and tackle different parts of the system at the same time. We must bring down the old, while also building the new. We must challenge the neoclassical thinking that underpins the status quo, while also developing new policy prescriptions that can be implemented now. To do all this successfully at the same time, we need more people.
Brexit means finance is at a crossroads
The government, the City, Mark Carney and the Bank of England all want our financial services sector to be our ‘engine of growth’. Carney said he wants to see it double in size over the next ten years. We know that the bigger our finance sector is, the more detached it is from our domestic economy, and the more detached it is from real people, jobs, work and investment. What 2008 should have shown is that we can’t have it both ways. We can’t have a bloated financial sector in the City of London serving itself and global financial markets, because it will always undermine the kind of economy we are trying to build for most people here in the UK. As Michael Hudson’s book aptly puts it, the finance sector is ‘killing the host’.
The stakes are high, but if the last ten years have taught us anything, it is that if we aren’t in the game, we definitely can’t change things. So let’s get stuck in.