Britain to approve ring-fencing of bank activities

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Finance minister George Osborne was to announce a major overhaul of Britain's banks Wednesday by approving a separation of their retail and investment businesses to help avoid another global financial crisis.

Chancellor of the Exchequer Osborne, part of the Conservative party heading a coalition government with the Liberal Democrats, will make the announcement in a high-profile annual address to finance leaders in central London.

Osborne will back the findings of the government-appointed Independent Commission on Banking (ICB), which earlier this year called for a "ring-fencing" of retail businesses so as to not allow investment-arm losses to sink banks.

The chancellor will also unveil the privatisation of Northern Rock, three years after it was nationalised by the previous Labour government as the devastating global financial crisis erupted in 2008.

A Treasury source told AFP that the chancellor was expected to give "an endorsement of the principles" of the ICB's interim report.

"This is a far reaching shake up to make high-street banks safer and protect taxpayers," the source said ahead of the Mansion House speech at 1830 GMT.

"The government set up the Banking Commission to ask the difficult questions that weren't asked before the crisis and this is right at the heart of their answer.

"Britain is now leading the world in learning the lessons from the disastrous failures of the last decade."

Banks need to protect their retail operations from their investment banking activities and should set aside more capital to prevent more state bailouts, the Commission said in an initial report in April.

The Commission is seeking to protect borrowers and savers in the event of another crisis and will publish its final report on September 12 when it will outline how exactly the so-called banking "firewall" will work.

The practice of banks using money from their retail arms to fund investment operations was widely blamed as a major factor behind the global banking crisis.

The ICB report followed fierce criticism over so-called "casino" banking -- a term commonly used to describe the high risks taken by investment bankers in the run-up to the crisis.

The Commission also suggested that banks raise their reserve levels above the international minimum of seven percent, to provide a greater cushion against the risk of failure.

The measure would mean that they would be able to lend only about 10 times what they hold rather than the 14 times allowed under current international standards.

Osborne was also expected to outline his plans for the sale of Northern Rock, ending months of deliberation and speculation.

Potential buyers could include Virgin Money, the Coventry and Yorkshire building societies, investment groups NBNK and Olivant, and Tesco Bank.

Northern Rock plunged into crisis in mid-September 2007 when its exposure to the credit crunch forced it to seek emergency assistance from the Bank of England, sparking the first run on a British bank in recent history.

To avert financial meltdown, the British government agreed in December 2007 to guarantee all customer deposits and then later nationalised the bank in February 2008 to prevent its collapse.

The lender was broken up into two parts last year, forming a so-called "good bank" that will be up for sale -- and a "bad bank" management company to run down the remaining toxic assets.

The bank, which is based in the northeastern English city of Newcastle, has repeatedly stated that it would work alongside the government to facilitate its return to the private sector.

© 2011 AFP

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