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British banks use less than half of their assets to fund the real economy



Most commentators seem to agree that a return to ‘back to basics’ banking is needed if we are to avoid the kind of speculative bubbles that tanked the global economy in 2008.

This means banks should focus on taking deposits and offering loans, and making a fair margin on the difference in interest rates between the two. (Once, bankers were said to adhere to something called the 3-6-3 rule: pay 3% interest on deposits, loan at 6%, and be on the golf course by 3pm. This was characteristic of a lazy, uncompetitive banking market, but one which, at least, didn’t crash the world economy.)

How close are we to achieving this ‘back to basics’ banking model in the UK? Greg Van Elsen of the Belgian NGO FairFin last year published a report, A Bank in Reverse, which investigated this question in a Belgian context. The report looked into the financial statements of banks active in Belgium, and sought to identify the country’s “most respectable” bank, that which was most dedicated to funding the real economy and least concerned with short-term trading for profit.

We are convinced”, wrote FairFin, “that most banks should become somewhat better behaved, and be mostly at the service of the real economy. So in fact, a bank in reverse.” So let’s look at the equivalent data for the main banks in the UK.

One of the important ratios the report looked at was the proportion of a bank’s assets which is accounted for by ‘loans and advances to customers’, including lending to businesses and individuals (but not to other banks). This is, after all, what we expect banks to be doing with our money.

Looking at this data for the UK’s main banking groups shows that overall, banks are only using a minority of their assets to provide loans to their customers. In fact, just 42% of the total assets held by British banks is actually loaned to customers. While some of the rest is held as cash and in central banks, a much larger amount is held in derivatives and other short-term assets ‘held for trade’.

Barclays stands out as the only bank with less than one-third of its assets being lent to customers. HSBC and RBS also use a minority of their capital for what most of us recognise as ‘banking’. While none of the British banks fared as badly as Deutsche Bank, which FairFin found used only 19% of its assets for lending, this is a poor picture overall. The Co-operative Bank was the only bank lending out more than two-thirds of its balance sheet to customers.

This is a simple ratio to calculate, but it tells us something about how much of a bank’s attention is focused on financing the real economy.*

Calculating the amount of money banks set aside for short-term trading is a more challenging task, and directly comparable figures are not available for all banks. (As such, this data should be treated with caution.) Again, following FairFin’s methodology, the data below looks at the securities portfolio of the banks to identify ‘securities held for trading’ – the assets most likely to be held for short-term profit-making. (‘Securities held to maturity’, in contrast, concern assets that a bank intends to hold to maturity, and thus are not speculative in nature.)

These figures show a clear correlation between those banks lending a smaller proportion of their capital to customers and those with investing a greater proportion in speculative trading. The Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS) and Barclays stand out as the two banks dedicating more of their assets to short-term trading than they do to actual loans to customers. For RBS – 82% owned, of course, by the British taxpayer – more than half of its assets are ‘held for trading’. The Co-operative Bank, meanwhile, reports investment in derivatives at just 2% of its total assets.

This is analysis is certainly a simplification of the complex operations of today’s banking giants, and further research is needed to identify trading assets which may support the real economy in a positive way. Also, it must be noted that few banks disclose enough information to identify how much of their loans to customers are supporting unsuitable or unjust economic activities.

However, the aim of this analysis is to identify what proportion of a bank’s attention is focused on the productive economy, and what proportion is being gambled in pursuit of short-term profits. The data suggests that, for most of the sector, ‘back to basics banking’ remains a long way off.

* While this analysis is new, similar data has been produced by others in previous years. After compiling these figures, it came to my attention that a similar exercise was carried out on the basis of 2011 data by the European Green party for the website This data is consistent with their figures, but provides an update for 2012, as well as some additional analysis on the picture for the overall market. Their methodology for calculating speculative activity was slightly different, focusing purely on derivatives.

Ryan Brightwell is the founder of Bright Analysis, a research consultancy for sustainability and social change. He was formerly ethical projects adviser at The Co-operative Group. 

Further reading:

Banking regulator fines RBS £5.6m for inaccurate transaction reporting

Big five’s banking monopoly at risk, with 2.4m closing accounts in 2012

Small is beautiful: why alternative banks need to step up to the mark

One responsible banking system to rule them all

The Guide to Sustainable Banking 2012

Ryan Brightwell is the founder of Bright Analysis, a research consultancy for sustainability and social change. He was formerly ethical projects adviser at The Co-operative Group.


Will Self-Driving Cars Be Better for the Environment?



self-driving cars for green environment
Shutterstock Licensed Photo - By Zapp2Photo |

Technologists, engineers, lawmakers, and the general public have been excitedly debating about the merits of self-driving cars for the past several years, as companies like Waymo and Uber race to get the first fully autonomous vehicles on the market. Largely, the concerns have been about safety and ethics; is a self-driving car really capable of eliminating the human errors responsible for the majority of vehicular accidents? And if so, who’s responsible for programming life-or-death decisions, and who’s held liable in the event of an accident?

But while these questions continue being debated, protecting people on an individual level, it’s worth posing a different question: how will self-driving cars impact the environment?

The Big Picture

The Department of Energy attempted to answer this question in clear terms, using scientific research and existing data sets to project the short-term and long-term environmental impact that self-driving vehicles could have. Its findings? The emergence of self-driving vehicles could essentially go either way; it could reduce energy consumption in transportation by as much as 90 percent, or increase it by more than 200 percent.

That’s a margin of error so wide it might as well be a total guess, but there are too many unknown variables to form a solid conclusion. There are many ways autonomous vehicles could influence our energy consumption and environmental impact, and they could go well or poorly, depending on how they’re adopted.

Driver Reduction?

One of the big selling points of autonomous vehicles is their capacity to reduce the total number of vehicles—and human drivers—on the road. If you’re able to carpool to work in a self-driving vehicle, or rely on autonomous public transportation, you’ll spend far less time, money, and energy on your own car. The convenience and efficiency of autonomous vehicles would therefore reduce the total miles driven, and significantly reduce carbon emissions.

There’s a flip side to this argument, however. If autonomous vehicles are far more convenient and less expensive than previous means of travel, it could be an incentive for people to travel more frequently, or drive to more destinations they’d otherwise avoid. In this case, the total miles driven could actually increase with the rise of self-driving cars.

As an added consideration, the increase or decrease in drivers on the road could result in more or fewer vehicle collisions, respectively—especially in the early days of autonomous vehicle adoption, when so many human drivers are still on the road. Car accident injury cases, therefore, would become far more complicated, and the roads could be temporarily less safe.


Deadheading is a term used in trucking and ridesharing to refer to miles driven with an empty load. Assume for a moment that there’s a fleet of self-driving vehicles available to pick people up and carry them to their destinations. It’s a convenient service, but by necessity, these vehicles will spend at least some of their time driving without passengers, whether it’s spent waiting to pick someone up or en route to their location. The increase in miles from deadheading could nullify the potential benefits of people driving fewer total miles, or add to the damage done by their increased mileage.

Make and Model of Car

Much will also depend on the types of cars equipped to be self-driving. For example, Waymo recently launched a wave of self-driving hybrid minivans, capable of getting far better mileage than a gas-only vehicle. If the majority of self-driving cars are electric or hybrids, the environmental impact will be much lower than if they’re converted from existing vehicles. Good emissions ratings are also important here.

On the other hand, the increased demand for autonomous vehicles could put more pressure on factory production, and make older cars obsolete. In that case, the gas mileage savings could be counteracted by the increased environmental impact of factory production.

The Bottom Line

Right now, there are too many unanswered questions to make a confident determination whether self-driving vehicles will help or harm the environment. Will we start driving more, or less? How will they handle dead time? What kind of models are going to be on the road?

Engineers and the general public are in complete control of how this develops in the near future. Hopefully, we’ll be able to see all the safety benefits of having autonomous vehicles on the road, but without any of the extra environmental impact to deal with.

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New Zealand to Switch to Fully Renewable Energy by 2035



renewable energy policy
Shutterstock Licensed Photo - By Eviart /

New Zealand’s prime minister-elect Jacinda Ardern is already taking steps towards reducing the country’s carbon footprint. She signed a coalition deal with NZ First in October, aiming to generate 100% of the country’s energy from renewable sources by 2035.

New Zealand is already one of the greenest countries in the world, sourcing over 80% of its energy for its 4.7 million people from renewable resources like hydroelectric, geothermal and wind. The majority of its electricity comes from hydro-power, which generated 60% of the country’s energy in 2016. Last winter, renewable generation peaked at 93%.

Now, Ardern is taking on the challenge of eliminating New Zealand’s remaining use of fossil fuels. One of the biggest obstacles will be filling in the gap left by hydropower sources during dry conditions. When lake levels drop, the country relies on gas and coal to provide energy. Eliminating fossil fuels will require finding an alternative source to avoid spikes in energy costs during droughts.

Business NZ’s executive director John Carnegie told Bloomberg he believes Ardern needs to balance her goals with affordability, stating, “It’s completely appropriate to have a focus on reducing carbon emissions, but there needs to be an open and transparent public conversation about the policies and how they are delivered.”

The coalition deal outlined a few steps towards achieving this, including investing more in solar, which currently only provides 0.1% of the country’s energy. Ardern’s plans also include switching the electricity grid to renewable energy, investing more funds into rail transport, and switching all government vehicles to green fuel within a decade.

Zero net emissions by 2050

Beyond powering the country’s electricity grid with 100% green energy, Ardern also wants to reach zero net emissions by 2050. This ambitious goal is very much in line with her focus on climate change throughout the course of her campaign. Environmental issues were one of her top priorities from the start, which increased her appeal with young voters and helped her become one of the youngest world leaders at only 37.

Reaching zero net emissions would require overcoming challenging issues like eliminating fossil fuels in vehicles. Ardern hasn’t outlined a plan for reaching this goal, but has suggested creating an independent commission to aid in the transition to a lower carbon economy.

She also set a goal of doubling the number of trees the country plants per year to 100 million, a goal she says is “absolutely achievable” using land that is marginal for farming animals.

Greenpeace New Zealand climate and energy campaigner Amanda Larsson believes that phasing out fossil fuels should be a priority for the new prime minister. She says that in order to reach zero net emissions, Ardern “must prioritize closing down coal, putting a moratorium on new fossil fuel plants, building more wind infrastructure, and opening the playing field for household and community solar.”

A worldwide shift to renewable energy

Addressing climate change is becoming more of a priority around the world and many governments are assessing how they can reduce their reliance on fossil fuels and switch to environmentally-friendly energy sources. Sustainable energy is becoming an increasingly profitable industry, giving companies more of an incentive to invest.

Ardern isn’t alone in her climate concerns, as other prominent world leaders like Justin Trudeau and Emmanuel Macron have made renewable energy a focus of their campaigns. She isn’t the first to set ambitious goals, either. Sweden and Norway share New Zealand’s goal of net zero emissions by 2045 and 2030, respectively.

Scotland already sources more than half of its electricity from renewable sources and aims to fully transition by 2020, while France announced plans in September to stop fossil fuel production by 2040. This would make it the first country to do so, and the first to end the sale of gasoline and diesel vehicles.

Many parts of the world still rely heavily on coal, but if these countries are successful in phasing out fossil fuels and transitioning to renewable resources, it could serve as a turning point. As other world leaders see that switching to sustainable energy is possible – and profitable – it could be the start of a worldwide shift towards environmentally-friendly energy.


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