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By Philippe Legrain ADD COMMENTS

The reason why the government had to rescue Britain’s banks is not that their shareholders and executives deserve special favours, but because businesses and jobs depend on the availability of credit. There is no public interest in propping up banks that won’t lend.

For sure, banks should not be lending with reckless abandon as they did in the go-go years, but nor should they be slashing the overdrafts of solvent small businesses and jacking up the interest rates on them. If the banks refuse to lend, the government must step in. It is considering all sorts of interventions, but seems to be ignoring an obvious solution.

Political pressure on the banks has been largely ineffective so far. While Peter Mandelson, the business secretary, has said that “It’s completely unacceptable to the government and to business in this country for banks indefinitely to stop functioning as banks. We are in very intensive discussions with the banks, believe me”, jawboning alone is unlikely to succeed when banks’ priority is hoarding cash and reducing risk.

Alasdair Darling is also drafting a raft of measures to support business lending. These could include new requirements for banks to give businesses greater notice of changes in the terms and availability of credit. More ambitiously, the Chancellor is looking at ways to extend government guarantees to support new business lending.

But such is banks’ aversion to lend that the government also needs to consider bolder moves. It could insure all loans to businesses. It could lend directly to companies. And it could nationalise the banks altogether.

There is also another option that the government does not appear to be considering. It already owns a fully fledged bank: Northern Rock. Perversely, while it is urging the soon-to-be part-nationalised banks to lend more, it is busy shrinking the balance sheet of the only fully nationalised one.

That made some sense when the rest of the banking sector was private: the government did not wish a state-owned bank to undermine the private banks by competing unfairly them. But now that the whole banking sector enjoys an implicit government guarantee and the overriding priority is supporting lending to avert a depression, that objection no longer holds.

So if other banks will not lend, the government should inject a dollop of new capital into Northern Rock and direct it to make it more credit available on reasonable commercial terms. If other banks do not follow suit, Northern Rock may grow to become one of the biggest banks in Britain. But so what? It can be privatised again, no doubt at a hefty profit for taxpayers, when the crisis is over and the economy is growing again.

Addendum: Northern Rock is raising its mortgage rates today. Unbelievable.

Posted 26 Nov 2008 in Blog

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