Business

There's more to the City than banks

BBC business editor Robert Peston on small firms that make a big contribution

Pfizer's closure of its research centre in the UK is one of those gut-wrenching stories.

Apart from the blow to more than 2,000 employees, many of them highly skilled, it is another setback to the task of rebuilding the British economy on foundations of expertise and competitive advantage in several sectors - and, to over-simplify the perceived British problem, not just on financial services and the City.

Actually, British dependence on the City is typically overstated. It's true that in the decade of boom years to 2007, financial services provided a disproportionate contribution to the growth of GDP - up to a third of growth in individual years.

But the City's share of the total economy or value added is probably not more than 10 to 12% - and the City probably remains smaller than manufacturing (which, of course, is currently performing better than for decades).

There is another issue. When critics denigrate the City, they often do so because they equate it with the giant banks - because they see these banks as having taken huge risks to generate giant bonuses for their executives, risks that turned out to have been underwritten by taxpayers and risks that went bad at a cost to the entire British economy.

So there is a passionate debate - focused on the Independent Banking Commission set up by the Treasury - to try to reconfigure banking so that the risks taken by banks rest exclusively with their creditors, investors and employees, and not with the rest of us.

Goodness only knows whether the hope that banks can be turned into ordinary mortal businesses is a hopelessly naive one.

But if you happen to think that giant, too-big-to-fail banks are a bad thing, it is probably as well to point out that they are not the entire City. I have been reminded of that important little fact by brand new research commissioned by a bunch of asset managers, who are gathered together as the New City Initiative and are fed up with being tarred with the mega-bank brush.

The research by IMAS Corporate Advisers trawled through the register of the Financial Services Authority and returns at Companies House. It estimates that small and medium size businesses in financial services, or businesses with up to 250 staff each, employ a minimum of 350,000 people and up to 560,000 people in the UK.

That is a fair number of people. It is equivalent to the number expected to be made redundant by the government's public spending cuts. And it suggests that the SME financial sector contributes more to UK employment than education, than energy and mining, than agriculture, forestry and fishing, inter alia.

While you might not believe that everything that these small financial firms is socially useful (not all of you, I know, are cheerleaders for hedge funds), and while you might think that some innovation by financial firms is fatuous at best, it is as well to recognise that SME financial services represent a rare and important pocket of excellence in the UK economy.

These smaller firms, especially those in asset management, showed far greater resilience since the crash of 2008 than the big banks.

And although smaller financial firms are even more dominated by men than bigger firms (the City remains astonishingly long on testosterone), FSA data shows that female employment in these smaller firms has been rising since the downturn, whereas it has been falling in big financial institutions.

So when the New City Initiative pleads that ministers should take care not to crush these smaller firms with new rules and regulations, especially diktats from the European Union, it may well be a voice that deserves attention.

Because here's the big simple point. None of the half a million-odd people in this sector are in firms that - unlike the big banks - are implicitly or explicitly subsidised by taxpayers.

None of them are in firms that would need to be rescued by taxpayers if their bets went wrong. They do not represent a direct risk to the stability of the financial system.

So they are probably not a problem that needs to be solved - rather they are a relative success for the UK.

So if they fear that their vitals will be squeezed by new directives and codes designed to sanitise the banks, perhaps we should listen. If the banks are the bathwater, these smaller firms may well be the baby which it would be injudicious to throw out.

You can keep up with the latest from business editor Robert Peston by visiting his blog on the BBC News website.

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