Tuesday, 25 January 2011

The Return of Glass Steagall (maybe)

Sir Jon Vickers’ speech at the weekend had the desired effect on bank shares yesterday – they dropped like a stone!

Sir Jon, who is currently chairing the Independent Commission on Banking, used the two most fearsome words in his armoury guaranteed to send shivers up any self-respecting pinstripe – Glass Steagall.

For those who want to see the banks brought to heel this is heady stuff. For the uninitiated, the Glass Steagall Act was brought in by the United States in the wake of the mother of all banking crises, namely the Great Depression, forcing through the splitting of investment banking (we like to call them casino banks nowadays, usually made up of derivative trading, currency arbitrage etc) and retail banks (those that you and I have our salaries paid into, the same ones that won’t lend to business).

Sir Jon’s Commission was set up to make recommendations on various banking issues in the wake of our most recent crash, not least a reduction in systemic risk; mitigating moral hazards in banking (that’s code for anything which makes bankers think “we know we shouldn’t be doing this, but it makes us piles of money”) promoting competition and structural reform, which includes splitting.

Will it happen? Who knows, but the suspicion remains that this is sabre-rattling designed to get the banks to come to heel over bonuses, particularly in light of Nick Clegg’s support for the proposal on Andrew Marr’s programme on Sunday (I sense a Clegg u-turn coming on).

Sir Jon, who will instantly catapult to the head of my list of contenders for Man of the Year if he actually does recommend it (what more incentive could he possibly need), is due to report in the Autumn.

My suspicion is that we will have a compromise in the end with the investment arms of banks like Barclays and HSBC becoming subsidiaries with separate balance sheets and all sorts of other rules to stop any future ‘contagion’ infecting our retail banks should another crash occur.

One to watch.


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