Chancellor raises additional £800m from bank levy
Could it be "no more Mr Nice Chancellor," at least as far as the banks are concerned?
George Osborne had originally announced that the government's new bank levy would be phased in, with a lower rate applicable in 2011.
The Chancellor has concluded that the banks are in better shape than he thought less than two months ago, when he announced that a smaller levy would apply in the current year. He has therefore decided that the full levy will be imposed with immediate effect, to extract the £2.5bn per annum which he expected to be the long term yield.
The effect of this is to raise £800m more from the banks in 2011 than the Treasury had been planning to do. Royal Bank of Scotland, as just one example, will pay around £150m more levy than it had been expecting (or £473m in total, up from £315m).
Here's the technical detail.
The levy applies to banks' short-term wholesale finance, the money they borrow for short periods from other financial institutions, big companies and very wealthy individuals, and also to uninsured retail deposits
In December the Chancellor announced that the levy would be at 0.075% - and half that for uninsured retail deposits. For the first year only, a 0.05% rate would apply.
That starter rate has now been scrapped. All banks will pay 0.075% from now on.
Except that there's a wrinkle, which complicates matters.
For the first two months since the tax was introduced on January 1, the banks have been paying the 0.05%. And since the Chancellor now regards that rate as too low, he will for March and April levy the tax at 0.1% to recoup the money lost, before lowering it to 0.075%.
If you're confused, probably all you need to know is that this messing around with the 2011 rate is designed to generate £2.5bn of revenue for the Exchequer this year, up from the £1.7bn originally expected.
Which is a useful bit of additional revenue, but the £800m increment is a rounding error in respect of the ballooning national debt and would shave considerably less than 0.1 percentage points off the UK's 10 per cent annual fiscal deficit.
In other words, the tax rise is probably of more importance from a symbolic point of view - perhaps indicating a touch more iciness in ministers' attitudes to the banks - rather than from a budgetary perspective.
After 2011, the expected take from the tax will remain as before: £2.5bn for 2012 and then £2.6bn in 2013 and 2014.
So does the official explanation of the imposition of the full levy stack up? Are the banks really significantly stronger than they were in December, and therefore better able to pay more tax?
Well perhaps not. But perhaps it is understandable that the Chancellor thinks they are in ruder health, given that ministers' pleas for banks to show pay restraint is not preventing them from handing out around £6bn in bonuses to their investment bankers.
Increasing the 2011 take from the levy also helps Mr Osborne respond to the charge from Labour frontbenchers that he is being softer on bonuses than they would be, in that Labour says it would repeat for one more year the special bonus tax which applied last year.
By way of context, the additional £800m of levy for 2011 equates to around 13 per cent of the aggregated value of the big banks' bonuses.
That said, for Mr Osborne and the Business Secretary, Vince Cable, the increased levy is only one element in a raft of initiatives to reach what Mr Osborne calls a "settlement" with the banks.
These initiatives go by the name of Project Merlin, and they include pledges from the banks to make £190bn of credit available to businesses in 2011 (see my post of yesterday for more on this).
Project Merlin is also likely to include a stipulation that banks should disclose the pay and bonuses of their eight or so most important executives below board level (board members' pay is already disclosed) - so that bank shareholders have more relevant information to make a judgement about whether top bankers' pay is excessive.
This increased pay transparency from banks is of particular importance to Vince Cable: he was not happy that the Treasury recently dropped plans drawn up by the last government to force banks to disclose how many of their staff are earning sums of £500,000, £1m, £1.5m, £2m, and so on.
I am told Mr Cable is pressing for the banks to reveal the pay details of the maximum number of senior staff consistent with not putting them at a significant commercial disadvantage in relation to US banks (which already have to publish most of this information).
So long as Mr Cable's concerns can be met, say government sources, Project Merlin could be announced as soon as Wednesday.
Update 08:20: By the way, there seems to be something of a disagreement between the banks and the government about the significance of £1.3bn in equity finance or investment capital which the banks say they'll provide to smaller and medium size businesses.
The question is whether this is really new, additional money for small businesses.
The FT reports this morning that, as part of Project Merlin, this equity finance will be provided to businesses in parts of the UK most hurt by public spending cuts - and describes the funding as a victory for the deputy prime minister Nick Clegg, the business secretary Vince Cable and the LibDem wing of the coalition.
Now it is true that banks are providing this equity finance. And it is also true that this £1.3bn is on top of the £1.5bn Business Growth Fund which the banks announced in the autumn.
However one banker told me that his bank awould support the business secretary's regional growth initiatives as "part of the normal course of business, ie in each region we will work with the agencies".
In other words, his bank would have provided this money anyway, through its regional funds, irrespective of whether it was labelled as part of Project Merlin.
Update 08:55: It is unusual for chancellors to make tax announcements outside of the yearly budget.
It is particularly unusual for such a tax announcement to raise only £800m in a single year – which is not enough to have a meaningful impact on the UK’s budget deficit.
But, as I have mentioned, George Osborne’s decision to force the banks to pay the full rate of bank levy with immediate effect probably isn’t all about mending the public finances.
Many would say that he is being motivated in part by the politics of being seen to be extracting more money from banks just as they’re about to announce controversial bonuses for their top people of perhaps £6bn in total – which is seven and a half times the additional tax being raised.
Somehow I doubt that the new shadow chancellor Ed Balls will say that Mr Osborne is raising enough. But Mr Balls may have to explain why the previous government, in which he was a cabinet minister (though not chancellor) did not take steps to force through permanent reductions in bankers’ bonuses at the moment when it had maximum leverage over the banks – when it was rescuing the entire banking industry in the autumn of 2008.