Banks: break us up and we're off

That was the implication from HSBC today, as it awaits the findings of the Government's banking reform commission.

by James Taylor
Last Updated: 19 Aug 2013
When Neil Sedaka sang 'Breaking up is hard to do', we're not sure he was thinking about the universal banking model. However, as the Government may soon discover to its cost, the same holds for the likes of HSBC and Barclays. The Coalition recently set up a commission to investigate whether the big banks should be forced to split their retail and investment banking operations – so that no bank can become 'too big to fail'. But yesterday, HSBC investment banking boss Stuart Gulliver suggested that any such effort would just result in our biggest banks upping sticks and disappearing to somewhere with a more enlightened approach. Distasteful though it may be to yield to bankers' threats, we can't help feeling that we need the likes of HSBC more than they need us at the moment...

Speaking at a conference in London organised by Nomura, Gulliver said he was 'genuinely concerned' that the commission might recommend forcing banks to break up – and, if that happens, it would have 'significant implications for where we may choose to headquarter our institution'. The centre of gravity of the financial universe has already started shifting eastwards in recent years – Gulliver's own boss, Michael Goeghegan (who he's favourite to succeed), has already relocated to Hong Kong, in a bid to signal the bank's focus on emerging markets. So relocating completely would have its merits.

For many people, the reaction to this kind of threat would be: fine, good riddance. These pesky investment bankers were, after all, partly responsible for getting us into our recent mess.

On the other hand, it's only fair to make a distinction between the likes of HSBC, Standard Chartered and Barclays, which survived the crunch without recourse to Government funding, and state-owned basket cases like RBS. In fact, HSBC would argue that its universal model actually gave it the strength to weather the storm. And looking at the winners and losers of the last couple of years, there's certainly no guarantee that hiving off the investment banks will make the overall system any more stable (assuming it's even possible to separate them in practice, which is debatable).

More to the point, can the UK afford to drive these businesses out of the country at the moment? Massive job cuts are looming in the public sector, and the private sector is expected to step up and fill the gap. So pushing out some of the UK's biggest private employers seems an odd decision, to say the least – particularly since this is one of the few industries where Britain is undeniably world-class.

There's a lot of pressure on politicians to cut the banks down to size, both here and in the US. But if the Coalition wants to hit its extremely ambitious job creation targets over the course of this Parliament, it probably needs to take heed of warnings like this. Or in a few years' time, George Osborne might be wistfully sharing another sentiment once voiced by good old Neil: Should've Never Let You Go.

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