UK declares new powers to break up banks

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George Osborne, UK treasury chief
George Osborne, UK treasury chief

Britain’s treasury chief warned the country’s banks on Monday that they face being broken up if they fail to protect their retail operations from their riskier investment arms.

George Osborne told executives from JPMorgan that the days of banks being “too big to fail” are over in Britain, and that taxpayers shouldn’t be expected to bail out the lenders. The next time a crisis hits, he wants more options to act.

“My message to the banks is clear: if a bank flouts the rules, the regulator and the Treasury will have the power to break it up altogether, full separation, not just a ring-fence,” he said. “We’re not going to repeat the mistakes of the past.”

The new measure gives regulators the power to force a complete separation of a lender’s retail business from its investment banking. Risky investments undermined banks’ stability in 2008, leading to taxpayer bailouts of two big UK banks.

Osborne’s remarks follow recommendations from the Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards that proposals for a “ring—fence” to protect retail banks needed to be “electrified” to discourage banks from probing for loopholes.

Osborne had been reluctant to accept the idea, but faced pressure stemming from public outrage over the behaviour of Britain’s banks.

(This article was published on February 5, 2013)
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