UK takes right step on too-big banks

November 3, 2009

jamessaft1.jpg(James Saft is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own)

So it can be done after all.

Britain is poised to take tough steps to break up the large banks it rescued, setting it in stark contrast to the United States, which seems set on a policy of shoring up the unfair advantages it grants its too-big-to-fail banks while regulating around the edges.

It is quite a change for Britain, which has a sorry history of self-serving self-regulation in financial services combined with limp and outgunned official control.

Chancellor of the Exchequer Alistair Darling on Sunday told the BBC that Lloyds, RBS and Northern Rock would be partly broken up and assets sold to new entrants into the banking market. Large existing competitors such as HSBC are expected to be blocked from making bids for the assets.

Britain took over Northern Rock after a run on the bank and its rescue of Lloyds and RBS left it with stakes of 43 and 70 percent, respectively.

It is worth noting that if anything Britain is more dependent on its financial services sector than the United States.

Could it be that Britain has determined that a level playing field, strong competition and a lower risk of a crisis might actually make it more competitive internationally? I certainly think so.

It will without doubt improve the situation for the small businesses and individuals that can’t access international capital markets and depend on the banks for access to credit and other financial services.

Before we get all excited and expect the United States to follow suit with Citibank and Bank of America, it is important to recall that Britain’s Labour government is more or less on its death bed and faces an election in 2010 which the bookies and almost everyone else think it is highly unlikely to win.

There is also the matter of the European Union, which has a say over subsidies such as the ones Britain has showered on the banks. RBS said on Monday that it may be forced by the EU to sell more assets than it had planned. Lloyds is also seen likely to raise additional new capital to allow it to stay outside of an asset insurance scheme Britain is running for the banks and which would involve the government taking yet more equity in the participants.

OH WHAT A CONTRAST

The fact remains that Britain and the EU are saying that more competition is needed and taking steps to ensure that the banks which ended up needing state care are broken up. This must have an impact on how other big banks are ultimately treated, even if they did not receive the same level of direct state aid.

The equity buffer that is being required is also remarkable; the banks should end up with core tier one equity of about 10 percent, four times what they were expected to hold before the crisis.

Contrast all of this with the hopefully named Financial Stability Improvement Act of 2009, now wending its way through Congress. As Harvard Business School professor David Moss points out, as currently drafted this bill won’t even allow the systemically important banks it is designed to control be named, a real Monty Python-esque touch.

Think about it: we won’t even be allowed to know the identities of the firms we are potentially on the hook for. Moss points out that this neatly side-steps the idea of taxing too-whatever-to-fail status as a means of encouraging the behemoths to sell up and avoid the costs. The costs remain with the taxpayer, or potentially with a group of big firms after the fact.

The argument the U.S. administration is making, more or less, is that our complex global economy somehow demands that we have complex huge banks. If we don’t allow huge banks to persist, we’ll choke off growth. If we think we can go back to mom and pop banking, we are simply kidding ourselves. And anyway, if the U.S. doesn’t allow it, foreign banks will just scoop up the cream. With Britain and the European Union taking strong steps, that argument is losing traction. And as for complexity, well I’d have to say that the record of complexity in banking is mixed, to be kind, as far as the deal it gives to taxpayers and consumers of banking services. It would be one thing to argue for huge economies of scale for plain vanilla banking processes like clearing, but it is hard to see why that needs to be combined with derivatives and trading.

It would be nice to think the winds are blowing west across the Atlantic, but this is not usually the case.

(Editing by James Dalgleish)

(At the time of publication James Saft did not own any direct investments in securities mentioned in this article. He may be an owner indirectly as an investor in a fund.)

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