Banking regulation: HSBC says it's a war out there

HSBC Canary Wharf

Douglas Flint, the chairman of HSBC, clearly thinks he is the new Winston Churchill.

Announcing the bank's half-yearly results, Flint conjured up the spirit of 1940 to describe the strains on his staff caused by the need to comply with tougher regulations imposed on the financial sector since the great crash of 2007-08.

Perhaps it was the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the first world war that inspired Flint to say: "I do not think we have ever had to ask so much of so many." Whatever it was, it was wrong at every level. Wrong war. Wrong comparison. Wrong battle to fight.

Let's be clear. The reason banks now face tougher regulation is because they abused the old soft touch regime. They rigged the Libor market. They mis-sold their customers insurance policies. In HSBC's case, they banked the money for a Mexican drug cartel. And, oh yes, they were collectively responsible for the near-collapse of the global economy in the Autumn of 2008.

At that point, when many of them - although not HSBC - needed money from the taxpayer to survive, the banks were all humility and contrition. They assumed, though, that the mood of extreme public anger would dissipate and that if they laid low it would be possible to regroup and push back against some of the more radical reform proposals.

So it has proved. The banks were relieved that the Vickers Commission of 2011 did not propose the break-up of banks into retail and investment arms, but rather insisted that there should be a "ring fence" between the two. The next stage in the campaign has been to delay the implementation of ringfencing for as long as possible. The current deadline is 2019: not long enough for Flint, who has told George Osborne he needs more time.

The chancellor should have no truck with this. It might be different if the punishment being meted out to the banks was disproportionate. It isn't. HSBC and the other members of the big four would deserve some sympathy if they could prove that a tougher regulatory regime was affecting the cost or availability of credit. They can't.

Instead, Osborne should point out to Flint that when Franklin Roosevelt passed the Glass-Steagall Act breaking up the US banks after the Great Depression he gave Wall Street a year to comply. The chancellor might also note that Flint's hero Churchill needed only five years after succeeding Neville Chamberlain to defeat Hitler: the banks have already been given eight years to implement Vickers.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Larry Elliott, economics editor, for theguardian.com on Monday 4th August 2014 16.14 Europe/London

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