Another quasi-political post. Brian Cox, in an interview with the BBC, described the cost of the bank bailout in the UK as more than the entire since budget ‘since Jesus’.
You may have come across Brian Cox as a very telegenic presenter of science TV shows, and he’s also professor of particle physics at the University of Manchester (and one-time keyboard player in the band D:Ream in the 1980s). Given his scientific credentials I wondered how he’d come up with Jesus as a reference point.
But look, here are the (rather sketchy and broad brush) ‘facts’ of the case. In 2009 Reuters reported the UK Treasury had spent £850 billion on the bank bailout and this figure was also reported in The Independent newspaper. The Guardian news blog tried up update the figure and offered a range of calculations in September 2011. By then the £850 billion had risen to around £955 billion and fallen back to £512 billion, and by some estimates on the blog the total level of commitments to support had at one point gone some way over the £1 trillion mark. The range of figures varies because some of the headline costs were guarantees and indemnities that weren’t called on, interest on loans was being paid back to the government, some of the cost relates to the purchase of shares in banks whose value fluctuated, and so on.
However the total cost isn’t just the cost to the Treasury, because the crisis accounts for a loss of (probably) somewhere between 11 and 13% of GDP for an unquantified number of years.
But let’s take the headline figure of £850 billion for illustrative purposes. How does that compare to government spending on science?
First off, we have a bunch of definitional problems: does ‘science’ mean only ‘hard’ sciences like physics and chemistry or are social sciences included? Does it include money spent on developing research findings into usable applications and products? Which bits of government spending qualify as being part of an overall ‘science budget’? And so on.
However the headline figure, again, is around £4.6 billion annually in recent years. And obviously this has fluctuated over time, especially if you want to project figures back into history. The idea of ‘science’ as we know it, crucially, only began to exist in the late 1600s – a little over 300 years ago. Indeed ‘England’ as we now know it hasn’t been around all the back to Jesus, but only emerged after the time of Aethelstan in the 900s AD.
But consider the relationship between the two headine figures. The government has spent (or committed) enough money to address the banking crisis to fund around 185 years of scientific research at current expenditure levels. And it’s a reasonable assumption that in proportional terms the government wasn’t spending anything like that between, say, the late 1600s and the mid-1900s – a potted history of science funding in the UK is on Wikipedia.
And that makes it a reasonable point to make that more has been spent on the banking crisis that has been spent, in total, on science right to way back to, say, 1675 when the Royal Observatory was established in Greenwich, broadly speaking the first point at which the government of the day decided to fund ‘science’ in any form we’d recognise today.
And the same would hold true, obviously, of any date prior to that because the ‘science budget’ would have been effectively zero before then. So it might have been more accurate to use 1675 as the reference point. To say more has been spent on the crisis than the total spend on science ‘since the time of Jesus’ remains accurate and clearly makes a hard political point. To go further back and say ‘since the time Stonehenge was founded’ – well, that was between 3000 and 2000 BC, it cost a huge amount of time and effort in terms of the population of that time, and it might be regarded as a scientific project of its time.
But the point is, by any standards the disparity in spending is huge. And the disparity between fiscal and scientific results on virtually any value-for-money terms, even allowing for the fact that science requires a manufacturing and industrial base and some kind of financial regime in order to progress, has to be even larger.
Oh yes. On BBC’s Question Time programme, speaking about the bank crisis, he said this about the senior management of banks: ‘It’s almost like they’re not human, isn’t it? You look at them and you think these people don’t live in the same world as us.’
He says rather more (it’s a two-minute clip) about how the top managers have destroyed public trust in the banking system. And he seemed to strike a chord with everyone on the audience in the studio, and I suspect with many of us at home.
He said it on 29 June, just as the LIBOR scandal was breaking and Barclays had been fined by the FSA for its role (Marcus Agius, chairman of Barclays, resigned yesterday and Bob Diamond resigned as chief executive of Barclay’s today; but it’s not just them, RBS sacked some of its traders over the emerging scandal a little while back and it looks like several other banks are in the firing line).
A bit of background on this. LIBOR, the London Inter-Bank Offered Rate, is the rate charged by banks for loans between each other. It’s set by the British Bankers Association daily. If you look at historical data on the rate (which is actually not one figure but a bunch of different rates for different loan lengths), you’ll see it dropped sharply in the back end of 2008, fell through 2009, and has stayed pretty low since. There’s a timeline on the BBC website of news about the rates. The allegations made are that banks have tried both to push the rate down (essentially borrowing below a true market rate) with a number of intended consequences including hiding the levels of financial stress they were experiencing and possibly paying below true market rates to some investors, and more recently tried to push the rate up because some loans to customers were geared to LIBOR. There are more detailed statements on all this, for example on Yahoo Finance, pulled through from the Daily Telegraph. The rate is important in a whole bunch of areas, including derivatives. The extent to which any rate-fixing actually worked is currently being debated, and the financial impact on bank customers may not be known for some time.[I've edited this since first writing it, to reflect info from additional sources.]
All this hasn’t happened in isolation, of course, nor has it happened suddenly. We just reached a ‘tipping point’ in a story that’s been running for a couple of decades at least. Banks have lost people’s trust, but I doubt many people now think politicians, senior managers of large businesses or anyone else in authority deals fairly with the public. The automatic reaction would be: what’s the spin, what are they hiding, whose behind-the-scenes interests are being served?
And there’s one scenario, buried in the history of anthropology, that might yet emerge as a result. But I’ve got to zip out for a while and do some practical stuff, so I’ll post about that later!
Last week I moved some money from one bank account to another. If I do this between accounts at the same bank it’s instant. These accounts are with different banks, so the warning comes up that it may take 3-5 working days for the transfer even though the money’s gone from one account straight away.
Now we were used to this in the days of manual banking as bits of paper got pushed from desk to desk, but how come it’s still like that in the internet age? My assumption is that they could move the money instantly, because, for example, local authorities and large businesses can have an arrangement in which their current account at close of trading is automatically deposited in an overnight account that enables them to make a penny or a buck, and then the money’s re-deposited in the current account the following morning.
For private customers, however, transferring money is subject to what is essentially a conjuring trick in which your money disappears for several days, during which time the bank is using it to make money on its own behalf. It’s routine, but the more I think about it the more I think it’s still my money and I should be getting that interest or a good proportion of it.
We’re not talking about a lot. Even at LIBOR rates we’re talking about somewhere less than £1 on the amount I transferred. I know the theory of banking is that they make money by taking deposits and lending, and the margin between the interest rate they get and the rate they pay. If they didn’t do that they couldn’t cover costs. But this ‘disappearing’ money seems to me to be a hangover from older practices (it always used to take 3 days so why tell the customers we can do it instantly now?). And because there’s not even much public knowledge that for banks it’s a money-making opportunity, and private customers can’t share in it, it seems to have a whiff of chicanery about it.
I’m open to refutations, observations, comments from people with actual banking knowledge…