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Just how many banks do we need?

Creating more banks is not necessarily the answer.

New Statesman

According to Greg Clark, financial secretary to the Treasury, the current number of banks in the UK is unacceptable. Says Clark: “we need more banks.” The co-founder of Metro Bank, Anthony Thomson, is singing from the same song sheet. Speaking at a conference last week, Thomson forecast that we will see between five and 15 new banks over the next three to five years. Let’s get real. There are immense barriers to setting up a new bank – as indeed there should be. If we witness two or three new banks over the next three years up and running, that would be a result.

Love them or loathe them, Tesco is one of the world’s most successful retailers, if you forgive it their disastrous foray into the US and the millions lost on its Fresh & Easy project. Even Tesco has found the launch of a current account product in the UK a major challenge. For the past year or more, Tesco has been working on rolling out a current account. We are still waiting to see what the Tesco Bank current account will look like. And this from a banking unit with deep pockets and led by Benny Higgins, arguably one of the leading retail bankers of his generation.

There are currently 17 separate providers of current accounts in the UK. The Tesco Bank launch, slated for the third quarter, will take us to 18. Additional competition is also coming from Bank of Ireland; it is to run three current accounts on behalf of The Post Office. The Post Office is currently trialing its new current account products across 29 branches across Essex and East Anglia ahead of a nationwide launch.

Within government, there seems to be a belief that making it easier for new banks to launch will somehow improve standards as a result of an increase in competition. What the country certainly could with is more responsible banks….an increase in innovation, perhaps. More transparent pricing would help for a start.

If the banks are really to serve the economy, the government has no option but to ensure that they are well -capitalised banks: by its nature, the need to be well capitalised will make it more difficult for new entrants to launch. The argument that we simply need more banks seems to this writer to be not proven.