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5 March 2011

Will John Vickers listen to Mervyn King?

Bank of England governor says it's time to separate retail and investment banking.

By Jonathan Derbyshire

In his City and Finance column in this week’s magazine, Alex Preston examines the annual results recently announced by two of the banks part-owned by the British taxpayer, Lloyds and Royal Bank of Scotland. Of RBS’s announcement of an operating profit of £2bn in 2010, Alex says this:

The bank’s chairman, Philip Hampton, described this as a “step change”, a claim validated by the £7.4bn operating profit in the “core” businesses – the day-to-day retail, corporate and investment banking units. The drop in investment banking income (down 30 per cent from 2009) and rise in corporate and retail profits (up 65 per cent) are a sign that RBS is returning to what made it great in the first place – old-fashioned high-street and business banking.

Alex ends his column by looking forward to the recommendations of the Vickers commission on banking, which is due to report to George Osborne in the autumn, and wonders what impact a possible break-up of the banks or the separation of retail from investment banking would have on RBS’s share price – this at a time when staff of UK Financial Investments are racking up the air miles canvassing possible buyers for the bank.

A fascinating interview by Charles Moore with Mervyn King in today’s Daily Telegraph suggests that the governor of the Bank of England is hoping that Vickers will recommend far-reaching structural reform of the banking industry:

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I quote to him the recent remarks of Stephen Hester, the chief executive of the largely publicly owned RBS, in which he seemed simultaneously to say that RBS should pay little tax because it had made little profit, but also that it should pay big bonuses because its investment arm had made big profits. Wasn’t there some sort of contradiction? Mr King nods. The remark illustrates, he says, the clash between the needs of high-street banking and the ambitions of investment banking. The key question, in his view, is not why an individual bank says it needs to pay bonuses (the reason cited is always the need to keep talent), but: “Why do banks in general want to pay bonuses? It’s because they live in a ‘too big to fail’ world in which the state will bail them out on the downside.” They are tempted to excessive risk and excessive payments: “It is very unproductive to single out individuals. Bankers were given incentives to behave the way they did. That’s what needs to change. We must resolve this problem.” He has high hopes that the independent banking commission will do so. In the Governor’s mind, this is not ultimately a technical but a moral question. It goes to the heart of whether people are ready to accept life in a free economy.

Will Vickers listen?