Ring fencing banks


Apparently “City leaders” are now “in secret talks with Treasury on weakening the ‘ring-fence’ scheme after fears global lenders will abandon Britain” (Sunday Times, 17th May).  This has been precipitated by the threatened departure from these shores of HSBC.  The only surprising thing about this news is that it has taken so long. My blog on the topic in December 2012 concluded “It is truly astonishing that this [Vickers] Commission should choose to focus its entire attention on the area that matters least [ring-fencing the banks’ retail activities].  The consequence of adopting their suggestions, as Vickers himself seems to be pointing out, can only be that we will hobble our own financial sector at great cost to the economy and the British taxpayer.”

The Treasury has to this day claimed that the public were demanding ring-fencing but that is nonsense.  Hardly anyone understands what it involves.  Invite the general public to sign a ring-fencing petition and see how many sign up.  The only reason they might is because the big banks do not like it.  Those few denizens of the City and Westminster who do understand what it involves fall into two camps: fantasists and realists.

The fantasists believe that investment bankers brought down their retail siblings and that, in turn, created the 2008 crash.  Actually it was caused by the retail sector giving mortgages, largely under US government instruction, to poor people who could not pay their debts.  Much the same happened in the UK: remember those building societies which turned themselves into retail banks?  They went to the wall first.

The realists know that however the regulators write the rules, those working for the same global corporation will find ways of cooperating.  That is what global corporations do.  Chinese walls are not even paper thin.

One, rather more practical, option was completely to separate retail from wholesale as the US used to do. That was abandoned by the Vickers Commission for good reasons.

The new government has better things to do with its time and attention than fiddle around with this, starting with resolving a deal with the EU.  There is zero chance that the rest of the EU is going to ring-fence their banks.  The Treasury should announce that, to be consistent with other EU banks, the whole topic will be postponed until after the EU referendum.