Business

Should the UK switch from banking to manufacturing?

Image caption Bank-bashing is politically popular but does Britain need the deep pockets of the finance industry?

Britain's banks were once the apple of most politicians' eyes, but the political consensus has turned and now they can do no right. But should Britain turn away from its reliance on financial services and revive manufacturing?

Could Britain survive without the banks?

Practically speaking, the question is clearly absurd. Money needs to move around and bankers are the people who know how to do it.

Yet they - and the institutions which they run - remain deeply unpopular, four long years after the financial crisis erupted.

So, the more profound question is: could we do without the remarkable range of products and services which banks and related financial institutions in London now offer? Should banking be vanilla rather than tutti-frutti?

Given the call this week by the Shadow Chancellor, Ed Balls, for the government to introduce a new £2bn tax on bank bonuses, a protective arm is firmly thrown around the bankers' shoulders by one of New Labour's Treasury team.

Deep pockets

Former treasury minister Kitty Ussher, now director of the Demos think tank, has recently completed a detailed project on the financial industry, City Limits.

Speaking to Radio 4's Analysis programme, she reasons: "Whilst we might not like our bankers, or in any way condone some of the riskier activities they've undertaken, they are still - believe it or not - human beings.

"While a backlash against the financial sector as a whole is very understandable," she adds, "what it means is, at an international level, operating out of London if you're a big financial services company just looks less attractive."

While Ms Ussher feels the bankers' pain, she says that there are also sound political reasons behind her public sympathy.

"If banks and other financial institutions were to leave London, that immediately means less tax receipts - which matters if you want to use that money to do social priorities."

In other words, Labour's generous impulses on public spending often need a paymaster with pockets as deep as those of high finance.

Hard-headedness of a different kind also makes the leading economic historian Nicholas Crafts cautious about waving farewell to the bankers just yet.

"Britain does have a tradition of being a very strong financial power," he says.

'Invisible earnings'

He points out that London had established itself as the most important capital market in the world even before the mid-19th Century.

Image caption London's long-standing dominance in the financial industry has been hard for other countries to copy

This comparative advantage in finance which Britain has enjoyed over other countries has helped keep the country solvent in tough times.

What are often called "invisible" earnings - the revenues earned from all the activities of Britain's financial sector - have contributed to balancing Britain's large imports of physical goods like plant and machinery and consumer goods.

Leadership in finance helps us pay our way and buy the things which other countries - thanks to their own competitive advantages - do better than us.

"It's quite hard to imitate a financial agglomeration like the City. Frankfurt has not superseded London in the way that perhaps German industry superseded parts of British industry during the 20th Century," says Professor Crafts.

And it is this crucial difference between the financial and industrial sectors which persuades him that the vogue for "rebalancing" the economy away from finance and towards manufacturing may be misplaced.

Prof Crafts, who is also director of the Cage Centre for Competitive Advantage in the Global Economy at Warwick University, argues that countries with large manufacturing sectors usually have more volatile economies than those with large service sectors.

"The business cycle fluctuations are more severe," he says.

"Having a large manufacturing sector is not of itself particularly a route to economic stability."

Back to basics?

So does this mean Britain should simply focus on finance and forget about being once again the workshop of the world forged in the smoky days of the Industrial Revolution?

Image caption Critics of Britain's reliance on the financial sector would like to see greater focus on manufacturing

No, says the leading Oxford University economist Dieter Helm.

Although it is difficult for any government to re-engineer the structure of an economy, he says, ministers should sort out what they can and cannot do to improve performance in all sectors of the economy.

He has compiled his own to-do list, which includes providing an educated workforce, properly maintained roads, efficient railways and properly functioning water and energy systems.

That lot may be beyond austerity Britain's means right now.

But Britain's highly innovative financial sector could yet come up with ways to fund such desirable aims. That is perhaps another reason not to close the door on the bankers just yet.

Meanwhile, as concerns mount about the pace of growth in the economy, the former chief of staff to Chancellor George Osborne is at pains to resist the calls to rebalance away from the financial sector.

"Whilst I very strongly support everything we can do to improve manufacturing, it shouldn't be at the expense of financial services," cautions Matthew Hancock, now a Conservative MP.

Despite the bank levy and other imposts on banking, there is no great inclination in the Conservative part of the coalition to see the back of the bankers.

For Liberal Democrats, though, like veteran investment manager Lord Oakeshott, the sheer size of the banking sector, at five times national output, is menacing.

This has aggravated the problems policymakers have faced when the banks got into difficulties.

"That is desperately damaging, particularly for our own small and medium-sized businesses," argues Lord Oakeshott.

Back in the den of finance itself, leading figures in the City are starting to feel less defensive about what they do.

Stuart Fraser, chairman of policy at the City of London Corporation, confronts head-on the charge that banks are offering too little support to smaller businesses.

"They have become overly dependent on bank lending," he counters.

In America, only about a quarter of finance to smaller businesses comes from banks, whereas in Britain, it is well over three-quarters.

He calls on the government to encourage investors to put risk capital into start-ups and existing ventures, so that success is rewarded.

So perhaps we should see Britain's financial sector as more like the Dragon's Den and less like the den of iniquity.

Although many will always find it hard to love the City, we need to recall its role in our national history. For without its flourishing, our problems would almost certainly be much worse.

Analysis is broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on Mondays at 2030 BST and repeated on Sundays at 2130 BST. You can listen again via the BBC iPlayer or by downloading the podcast.

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