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Brexit is not the only challenge Britain is facing. Many British entrepreneurs and private customers are dissatisfied with the domestic banking system. Despite the large number of financial institutions in the City of London, the British banking market is one of the least competitive in Europe. 80 percent of SME loans are granted by the four largest British banks. According to a survey conducted a few years ago, only 13 percent of British SMEs were convinced that these institutions were acting in their best interest.
The British Labour Party therefore wants to provide entrepreneurs and private customers with better financial services. However, with their latest proposal, the establishment of a Post Bank owned by a public trust, they are relying on an instrument of unclear economic benefit. Much more promising would be the establishment of a network of independent regional credit institutions, for example as cooperatives.
Not least thanks to its many cooperatively organised Volksbanken and Raiffeisenbanken, Germany is among the most competitive banking markets in the world. Regional cooperative banks are particularly important actors in lending to small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). In Germany, they grant around one third of all SME loans. In terms of their balance sheet total, they are thus twice as committed to SMEs as the average German bank. Even at the height of the financial crisis, the cooperative banking network further increased its corporate loans, while many other banks reduced their lending. It is therefore thanks in particular to the cooperative banks that Germany was able to weather the crisis without a credit crunch.
There are clear reasons for this. On the one hand, the Volksbanken and Raiffeisenbanken have particularly close ties to their home regions. For this reason, they consider the benefits for the domestic economy in every lending decision. Their knowledge of borrowers and the regional environment also enables them to reliably assess whether companies are capable of weathering an economic crisis. As cooperative banks, the Volksbanken and Raiffeisenbanken are especially committed to their regional members and therefore remain loyal to them throughout all economic phases.
The public development banks, which the British Labour Party intends to set up as well, would also have significantly greater chances of success through a network of strong regional cooperative banks. This is illustrated by the example of Germany, where the Volksbanken and Raiffeisenbanken, with their outstanding knowledge of the regional economy, are important partners of the development banks. As on-lending banks, they examine commercial and private credit applicants, assess their plans and decide whether they will support their projects and apply for a loan from a development bank.
Proposals such as those from the British Labour Party should be updated. Ideally they could spark a broader discussion about banking models that take into account the interests of all stakeholders and not just the profit maximisation interests of individual bank owners. We have summarised the relevant thought-provoking impulses - not only with regard to the United Kingdom - in a position paper.
In the United Kingdom, there are already attempts by civil society to establish a regional cooperative banking system. The Royal Society of Arts has published an interesting article about this. The accompanying video nicely sums up the benefits of regional cooperative banking models.
Ralf W. Barkey is CEO of Genossenschaftsverband – Verband der Regionen, Germany's largest cooperative auditing association.
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