The MT diary: Howard Davies

Missing Canary Wharf; bank mergers on the way; bravely into China; referendum ploy

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Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

It is almost a year since I left the Financial Services Authority, and I can say that the spasms of nostalgia for Canary Wharf have been few and far between. The people were (are) terrific, but financial regulation is a bit like banging your head against a brick wall - particularly nice when you stop.

Yet I felt a twinge of regret at not being an insider, so to speak, to the Marks & Spencer inquiry. With intercepted mobile phone records, conversations at the Chelsea Flower Show and writs flying hither and yon, it has everything one needs to brighten up life at the Lubyanka over the summer.

Who knows where it'll end? No doubt there are innocent explanations for all these striking transactions. But even now the story tends to suggest that there are still many who do not think very hard about the insider trading rules before they buy. Perhaps this case, whatever the outcome, will focus some minds helpfully.

In spite of M&S's best efforts, merger and acquisition activity has not yet taken off in a big way, and equity markets have been moving sideways. Perhaps that is why people feel they need tips before they buy: the traditional buy/ hold strategy has not been delivering exciting returns recently.

I expect more to happen in the next 12 months, though some of the juiciest targets, in the banking sector, are off-limits after the OFT/Competition Commission ruling on the projected Lloyds tie-up with Abbey.

Do we need to rethink our approach to competition in banking? Worldwide, the banking sector is still highly diverse. It is ripe for a new bout of consolidation. That is happening, to some extent, in the US - witness the JP Morgan/Banc One deal - but hardly at all in Europe. That is partly because cross-border acquisitions raise political difficulties. Every target, however small, bargains to be the head office of the merged group. But it also reflects what may be an out-of-date view of competition.

In any event, I cannot see the status quo lasting for much longer. There should be plenty to talk about over the roses at Chelsea next year.

In China, the banking market is dominated by the big four state-owned banks, each with more than a million employees and 50,000 to 100,000 branches. Running the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China makes managing Barclays look like a part-time sinecure.

It's not just the size that makes the job a challenge. About 20% of the borrowers are no longer paying interest, some while still continuing to trade. Resolving the non-performing loan problem is China's next big issue, and it was the main topic of conversation on my latest trip there. The talk is of bringing some of these behemoths to market soon, in the hope that foreign minority shareholders will help to shake them up.

It is a tribute to the power of the China dream that there are foreign banks keen to pick up the gauntlet, even though the state will continue to be a majority shareholder and there are many restrictions on their freedom of action. HSBC has already taken a stake in the Bank of Communications in Shanghai. If it shows signs of succeeding, others will surely follow.

And John Bond and Stephen Green have an enviable record of buying low and turning round.

There was a time, not long ago, when the Chinese were intrigued by the UK's position on the euro. You couldn't stand up at a conference without being asked when we expected to join, and just what our hesitations are. This unanswerable question has gone away, but sadly it has been replaced by one just as difficult. 'Please tell me, Mr Davies, exactly what will change in Europe with the new constitution?'

'Is it that time already?' you say, and prepare to make good your escape. But politeness dictates some kind of response. If only there were a Sun guide: 'Twenty Things You Need to Know about the EU Constitution'.

It may be that even EU heads of government are not entirely clear what they have agreed, judging by the different bills of goods sold in different countries. Some presented it as a triumph for the subsidiarists, others as the next step on the march to the European superstate.

So is Europe going our way? The prime minister thinks so, and is going to ask the people to agree. This looks a foolhardy enterprise. As the Chinese philosopher Sun Tzu said: 'Every battle is won or lost before it is ever fought.' This one looks dead on arrival, judging by the polls.

So why should the PM set off into the valley of despair without a paddle?

Perhaps the clue is in the timing. Our referendum is not expected until 2006, the most leisurely timetable of all the countries planning a popular vote. I suspect the calculation in No. 10 is that the truculent Dutch or the irritating Irish will say no first, which could make our own vote unnecessary. I expect the New Labour campaign team will be joining the Dutch 'no' crowd - just to get some experience of a referendum, you understand.

As a postscript this month, we should shed a tear for the FT's Observer column, which was finally put out of its misery this summer. Long known as a rest home for ancient jokes, it expired gently. No flowers, please, not even tired cast-offs from Chelsea - though they would be appropriate in their way.

- Howard Davies is the director of the London School of Economics.

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