Tories to break up banks?
Robert Peston | 12:40 UK time, Wednesday, 8 April 2009
Royal Bank of Scotland and Lloyds TSB could be dismantled after the next election, if the Tories form the government.
George OsborneHere's why I say that, in the form of excerpts from a speech that's just been delivered by George Osborne, the Shadow chancellor.
"We cannot allow one part of our economy to behave in a way that puts the rest of the economy at risk when it fails. We need to think deeply about whether we can sustain banks that are not only too big to fail, but potentially too big to bail.
By dint of its substantial shareholdings the government has a powerful influence over the future structure of the UK banking industry, whether it likes it or not.
When the time comes to sell off those shareholdings we need to think very carefully before simply selling them to the highest bidder without thinking through the consequences for the wider economy.
We should look at whether Britain in fact needs smaller banks.
For it would be a bitter irony if we came out of this crisis with a banking system that was even more concentrated and even riskier than the one we had before it."
The background to these remarks is that Royal Bank's balance sheet is considerably bigger than the total output of the British economy and it liabilities are considerably great than the entire public-sector debt of the UK.
Hence Osborne's allusion to banks that are "too big to bail". Or to put it another way, in rescuing RBS, the government has mortgaged all our economic futures to the rehabilitation of this giant bank.
As for Lloyds, it became far and away the biggest retail bank in the UK when it was permitted to buy HBOS last autumn.
In fact, it only rescued battered HBOS because the deal offered a once-in-a-generation opportunity to become the unchallenged market leader in British retail banking.
So if the next government were to dismantle Lloyds, depriving it of its enormous share of the current-account, savings and mortgage markets, that would be a reputational disaster for Lloyds' management.
There are two further implications of Osborne's remarks: first, that he would privatise Northern Rock as an independent bank, rather than flogging it to another bank; second, that he would ask the City watchdog, the FSA, and the competition authorities to consider whether other big British banks should be broken up. Even those where taxpayers don't have a big stake.
In the City, where I am tapping out this blog, this is big stuff.
To do my normal thing of ramming home the bleedin' obvious, the opinion polls are currently saying Osborne will be the next chancellor. Which means that his ambitions for what our banks should look like after the spring of next year are at least as significant as the future plans of the current chancellor.
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