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The Banks that Ate the Economy

LONDON – Bank of England Governor Mark Carney surprised his audience at a conference late last year by speculating that banking assets in London could grow to more than nine times Britain’s GDP by 2050. His forecast represented a simple extrapolation of two trends: continued financial deepening worldwide (that is, faster growth of financial assets than of the real economy), and London’s maintenance of its share of the global financial business.

These may be reasonable assumptions, but the estimate was deeply unsettling to many. Hosting a huge financial center, with outsize domestic banks, can be costly to taxpayers. In Iceland and Ireland, banks outgrew their governments’ ability to support them when needed. The result was disastrous.

Quite apart from the potential bailout costs, some argue that financial hypertrophy harms the real economy by syphoning off talent and resources that could better be deployed elsewhere. But Carney argues that, on the contrary, the rest of the British economy benefits from having a global financial center in its midst. “Being at the heart of the global financial system,” he said, “broadens the investment opportunities for the institutions that look after British savings, and reinforces the ability of UK manufacturing and creative industries to compete globally.”

That is certainly the assumption on which the London market has been built and the line that successive governments have peddled. But it is coming under fire.