In a statement to the House of Commons on 9 February 2011, the Chancellor announced that banks would extend their new lending to SMEs (Small and Medium-Sized Enterprises) from £179 billion in 2010 to £190 billion in 2011. An important question is the extent to which this initiative, which forms part of a series of initiatives in conjunction with the banking sector known as Project Merlin, will impact on economic activity.
Let’s begin by thinking about the role that credit plays in an economy. Firstly, it serves a short-term role by enabling individuals and firms to ‘bridge the gap’ between their income and their spending. Secondly, it can, depending on the size and terms of the credit, help to fund longer-term investments. In the case of firms, for instance, it can help to fund capital projects such as an expansion of premises or the installation of new equipment or production processes.
The extension of credit is the main source of growth in the money supply. If the credit which is extended by financial institutions is spent it increases economic activity. The size of the increase in economic activity will depend on how many times the credit is passed on from one firm or individual to the next. In other words, it depends on the velocity of circulation of money – often referred to simply as V. If the initial credit funds a series of purchases and the recipients of these monies, i.e. those from whom the purchases are made, then use their increased deposits to fund purchases themselves, the expansion could be sizeable.
There is every indication that the additional credit for SMEs will be welcome and it seems reasonable to assume that this will positively impact on spending. But, by how much is not entirely clear. This is what fascinates me about macroeconomics, but, perhaps understandably, may well frustrate others! Once the payments for the purchases made using the newly available credit become new deposits, how will these recipients respond? Will other credit-constrained firms use this liquidity to engage in purchases themselves? But, what if these recipients use the monies to increase or rebuild their own financial wealth? In this last scenario – a pessimistic scenario – the velocity of circulation will increase relatively little and economic activity little too.
The corporate sector, of course, does not exist in isolation of other sectors of the economy and, in particular, of the household sector. As some of the income from the expanded credit flows to them in the form of factor payments (i.e. wages and profits) – though by how much is itself debtable – how will they respond? Again will credit-constrained households look to spend? Alternatively, will they hold on to these liquid balances perhaps using them as buffer-stock savings? This is not an unrealistic possibility given the leverage of households and the need to rebuild wealth, especially so in times of incredible economic uncertainty? But, who knows!
So while Merlin may have waved his wand, the full extent of its impact, though probably positive, is far from clear. Time will tell. Isn’t macroeconomics wonderful!
HM Treasury Press Release
Government welcomes banks’ statement on lending by 15% more to SMEs, and on pay and support for regional growth, HM Treasury, 9 February 2011
Statement to the House of Commons by the Chancellor
Statement on banking by the Chancellor of the Exchequer 9 February 2011
Banks sign lending and bonus deal BBC News (9/2/11)
Banks agree Project Merlin lending and bonus deal BBC News (9/2/11)
Osborne’s plans arrive too late for the economy Independent, Sean O’Grady (11/2/11)
Project Merlin ‘could weaken UK banks’ Telegraph, Harry Wilson (11/2/11)
Nothing wizard about Project Merlin Guardian UK, Nils Pratley (7/2/11)
Softball: Britain’s banks make peace with the government – for now The Economist (10/2/11)
Smaller firms insist banks must change their attitude The Herald (11/2/11)