A thousand, a million, a billion, a trillion? Paradoxically, one of the ways the HSBC bank can hope to ride out the current storm is that the numbers are so far beyond experience for most of us that we glaze over.
HSBC is under fire because of documents which have filtered through to the Guardian which show that a Swiss subsidiary facilitated, helped, and even prompted tax avoidance and money-laundering.
About £80 billion was held in those Swiss bank accounts. That’s the equivalent of £3000 for each household in the UK. If the money had been taxed at a high rate, we’d be visibly better off.
HSBC and other banks have already got into lots of trouble for other shady dealings. Over the five years 2009-13, since the 2008 crash put banks under closer scrutiny, HSBC and three other big British banks, RBS, Barclays, and Lloyds, have paid or set aside £36 billion for fines or settling claims for misdeeds.
That’s £1,400 for each household in the UK.
These figures are cash wealth — “money in the bank” — which, for most people, is a small proportion of total assets.
Cash wealth is unequally distributed. Consider just notes and coins: about £60 billion worth is held by households. That’s an average of £2,300 per household. If you consider that most households will have much less than £100 cash-in-hand at a given time, that tells you how much cash the rich keep. Bank deposits average £23,000 per household, and that is just the money in UK banks, not counting what is hidden away in Switzerland or the Cayman Islands.
On the latest figures, total household wealth in the UK is £9.5 trillion. A large part of that is homes which people own or part-own: the disposable, fluid wealth is only part of it. The £9.5 trillion is an underestimate, because many of the super-rich hold their loot not as “household wealth” but in the formal ownership of companies and trusts which they control.
Even with the underestimate, though, official figures show that the top 10% own 44% of that household wealth. If the wealth of the top 10% were distributed evenly, then the average household would be 60% better off.
Another set of figures shows the total value of different sorts of physical assets. Pro rata for each household in the UK, those are (on latest National Statistics figures, more up to date than those quoted in Solidarity last week) £160,000 worth of housing; £60,000 worth of factory, office, etc. buildings; £28,000 of machinery and equipment.
The financial assets of the banks greatly exceed those totals. Banks hold around £20 trillion in financial assets — enough to buy up all the country’s physical assets three times over — or the equivalent of about £800,000 for each household in the UK.
Out of those assets flow huge incomes for individuals. Bankers’ bonuses over the five years to 2014 totalled about £80 billion. Or, to put it another way, over those five years about £3000 was extracted from the labour of the average household to expand the luxury of just a few bankers.
It’s not just financiers. Bosses of the top 350 companies average £1.9 million a year each in pay, bonuses, and other deals; bosses of the top 100 companies, £2.8 million.
The banks are the pinnacle of a system in which the majority labour — on a living wage if we’re lucky, less if we’re not, but in any case no more than we need to keep going — in order to create ever-more-dizzying wealth for a tiny minority.
Seize the billions! Stop the exploitation! Put social wealth under social control!