Banks: Some home truths

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Last autumn’s near collapse of the UK banking system was unprecedented. The reality was that two of the UK’s four major clearing banks – RBS and Lloyds (including HBOS) - were close to financial oblivion. And, whilst Barclays did not require an injection of public equity, it was in poor shape: its fortunes have subsequently recovered. As for Midland, its owner, the esteemed Asian-based Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank, was never likely to fail. Indeed, not surprisingly, it attracted a large inflow of deposits from discerning investors seeking a safe bank.

To enable the survival of RBS and Lloyds, the Government injected an astonishing £37 billion of new equity capital. It was the previous lack of sufficient equity, commensurate with the increasing risks that RBS - especially post the disastrous ABN-AMRO deal - and Lloyds were running, that proved their undoing. At the recent G20 gathering, there was an encouraging consensus that increased levels of bank equity capital were paramount.

There remains a strong case for periodic stress-testing of the UK’s four clearing banks, perhaps over a three-year cycle: immediate restorative action to boost balance sheets could be implemented if necessary. In terms of bankers’ bonuses, there is an ongoing debate both about capping and/or taxing them, and the widespread wish to maintain secrecy. Since the pay of directors is painstakingly reproduced in Annual Reports, perhaps a reasonable compromise would be to publish bonuses over a certain level.

Finally, the four clearing banks should not necessarily operate on a level playing- field. Two passed ‘Go’ to collect a massive level of Government equity to stay afloat – two did not. Hence, if like RBS, you end up with majority state ownership, your activities will inevitably be more constrained.

Moral: never get into a situation that requires a public bail-out. Correct?