The announcement that Nationwide Building Society is postponing its push into SME banking until 2016 is a blow for the UK coalition government, particularly coming on the back of disappointing SME lending figures this summer. The Nationwide suspension comes despite the new governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney, announcing that the largest eight banks and building societies (which includes Nationwide) will be allowed to hold less capital once above the 7% level to encourage more lending to the SME segment.
This builds on the bad news earlier in the year for SME lending that Santander was withdrawing from the purchase of the RBSG branches. These branches have been selected specifically for their SME focus. The uncertainty as to who, if anyone, will replace Santander in taking on that business is a further blow. For while the Chancellor has talked about new entrants coming into the UK banking sector and Vince Cable, the Trade Secretary, has pushed for the banks to increase their lending to businesses and even talking about setting up a government funded bank for business, competition in lending to the SME sector has decreased rather than increased. The decision of the Co-op to stop any new lending to corporate sector has been effectively the withdrawal of another player in the market.
But should anyone feel surprised that this is the case? As one of his parting gifts the former Governor of the Bank of England, Lord King of Lothbury, pushed for banks to hold far higher levels of capital than they did prior to the financial crisis. The newly formed PRA then went on to enforce this. With the Nationwide, somewhat surprisingly given the risk averse nature of its book, being told to hold significantly more capital than it has been used to and with a growing residential and buy to let market, both of which require far less capital to be held than for SME banking and represent a far less risky way to make money, it is no real surprise to see that the Nationwide decided there were better places to use its capital at this time.
Of course this is not the whole picture. Nationwide has been for some time been going through the painful process of replacing its core banking platforms. Like Commonwealth Bank of Australia which has declared victory on its implementation of the same system two years late and with a budget that doubled to AUD1.2bn, Nationwide is finding carrying out a full heart, lungs and liver transplant of its systems is not plain sailing. It may well have been that Nationwide has not only delayed the entry into SME banking for financial reasons, but also because the new systems are not ready.
Whilst overall competition in SME banking is reduced there are one or two new entrants that are making their mark, albeit on a relatively small scale. The largest of these is Handelsbanken with in excess of 150 branches and a high level of customer satisfaction despite being very profitable. There is also Aldermore which, whilst keeping a low profile is making notable progress. The owners of Aldermore are members of one of the syndicates bidding for the RBSG 316 branches, so the Aldermore approach to banking may get the opportunity to scale up.
The Government may be satisfied that the UK has a safer banking environment but the price that is being paid for the additional regulation, the higher levels of capital and increased interference is that there is not only less competition in SME banking but less lending going to small businesses to fuel the growth of the economy.