British banks win time to reform

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Britain's government backed on Monday a recommendation that the country's banks be given until the end of the decade to make major structural reforms aimed at avoiding further bailouts.

Finance minister George Osborne said that the coalition government would begin drawing up new legislation backing an independent commission's call that banks such as HSBC and Barclays implement the sweeping reforms by 2019.

The Independent Commission on Banking, chaired by ex-Bank of England chief economist John Vickers, confirmed initial proposals for a "ring-fencing" of lenders' retail businesses to avoid banks being sunk by investment unit losses.

The ICB also called on Britain's banks to increase their capital funds to cover future losses and estimated that the cost to lenders of the reforms would total between £4.0 billion and £7.0 billion ($6.3 billion-$11.0 billion) a year.

Vickers said the recommendations were aimed at reducing the risks of a future banking collapse.

"It is a combination of the structural measures and greater loss-absorbency so the banks are more self-reliant and the taxpayer gets right off the hook," he told the BBC radio.

"The commission believes that banks should be strongly encouraged to implement any operational changes as soon as possible," the ICB said in its report.

"But, particularly given the additional capital the measures will require, an extended implementation period would be appropriate for what amount in combination to fundamental and far-reaching reforms intended for the longer term.

"Implementation should however be completed at the latest by ... the start of 2019," the report added.

Osborne welcomed the report and said the Conservative-Liberal Democrat government would act to implement its recommendations.

"The government will now get on with implementing the Vickers report," Osborne said.

"We have a commitment now to legislate and get the rules in place while this government and this parliament is sitting. Then it will take some time for the full rules to take effect but that is what John Vickers himself recommends."

The British Bankers' Association, which also represents state-rescued lenders Royal Bank of Scotland and Lloyds Banking Group, warned that careful consideration must be given to the reforms and their impact on economic recovery.

"Any further reform measures adopted by the UK authorities need to be carefully analysed and compared with those agreed internationally," the BBA said in a statement responding to the ICB's final recommendations.

"It is vital that the full impact any further reforms will have on the economy, the recovery and banks' ability to support their customers in the UK is understood."

It has been widely reported that Britain's banks strongly lobbied for the reforms to occur after the country's next general election in 2015.

There are fears that swift implementation of ring-fencing amid renewed weakness in the global economy could pressure Britain's biggest banks to relocate abroad. HSBC and Barclays are both rumoured to be considering moving their headquarters away from Britain.

The ICB said Britain's banks should raise core capital ratios to "at least" 10 percent, significantly more than the 7.0 percent required by the end of the decade under new international "Basel III" rules that were agreed last year.

It also called for improved measures to help consumers switch current accounts.

Osborne's creation of the ICB in June 2010 followed fierce criticism over so-called casino banking -- a term used to describe the high risks taken by investment bankers denounced for their role in the global financial crisis of 2008.

© 2011 AFP

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