Financial News

  • 5 August 2014, 8:51

HSBC Urges Ring-Fencing Delay Amid CMA Probe

One of Britain's biggest banks is urging the Government to delay a deadline for separating lenders' retail and investment banking operations amid fears that billions of pounds could be wasted on the project.

Sky News has learnt that Douglas Flint, the chairman of HSBC, has written to George Osborne, the Chancellor, and Mark Carney, the Bank of England Governor, in recent days to warn about the potential implications of a competition probe into the industry.

Mr Flint is said by Whitehall sources familiar with the letter's contents to have requested a delay to the 2019 timetable for bank ring-fencing, which was part of Sir John Vickers' Independent Commission on Banking (ICB) report in 2011.

One political insider said that HSBC was not challenging a recent announcement by the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) disclosing that it was minded to move ahead with a full inquiry into the personal current account and small business (SME) banking markets.

However, the bank is understood to have expressed concern that the CMA could call for structural reforms which would entail the disposal of operations on which it is already spending significant sums in preparation for the introduction of ring-fencing.

The demand for a delay to the ring-fencing deadline until the outcome of a competition probe is known represents the most robust recent intervention by a major bank over one of Britain's key post-crisis reforms to the industry.

Andrew Bailey, the Prudential Regulation Authority chief executive, and Andrew Tyrie, chairman of the Treasury Select Committee and Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards (PCBS), are also understood to have received Mr Flint's letter.

Legislation to enact the ring-fencing structure had already been passed under the Banking Reform Act, and it is unclear whether there will be any appetite among politicians or regulators to accede to HSBC's request.

Mr Flint's letter will, nevertheless, carry substantial weight in Whitehall because of his status as one of the most respected executives in the UK banking sector.

A public endorser of the ICB reforms in the past, he also chairs the board of the Institute of International Finance, a global association of financial services trade bodies.

The ICB acknowledged that segregating the retail and investment banking operations of the big UK lenders would incur billions of pounds of costs, but argued that it was the most effective way to prevent taxpayers having to step in and rescue banks during a future financial crisis.

A number of key details, including the governance of ring-fenced banks, are expected to be set out in secondary legislation during the next 12 months.

Mr Osborne has also waved through a key PCBS recommendation that regulators be given the power to enforce full separation of universal banks such as Barclays and HSBC if they breach the new rules: a reserve power that Mr Tyrie described as "electrifying the ring-fence".

Sky News has learnt of HSBC's warning to Mr Osborne the day before it reports half-year results, making it the last of the major UK banks to do so.

HSBC declined to comment on Sunday.

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