Nations tighten local banking regulations

Christine Harper and Yalman Onaran New York

Global banking, a model promoted for more than 30 years by financial conglomerates cobbled together through cross-border mergers, is colliding with the post-crisis reality of stricter national regulation.

Daniel Tarullo, the US Federal Reserve governor responsible for bank supervision, announced plans last week to impose the same capital and liquidity requirements on the US operations of foreign lenders as on domestic companies. The UK and Switzerland have also proposed banking and capital rules designed to protect their national interests.

Regulators want to curtail risks exposed after global banks such as New York-based Citigroup, Edinburgh-based Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS) and Zurich-based UBS took bailouts in the biggest financial crisis since the Great Depression.

Forcing lenders to dedicate capital and liquidity to multiple local subsidiaries, rather than a single parent, may undermine the business logic of a multinational structure.

“Being big and spread out all over the world isn’t what it used to be,” said Mayra Rodriguez Valladares, the managing principal at consultancy MRV Associates. “You’ll see global banks jettison divisions abroad and at home.”

UBS, Citigroup and RBS are among banks doing just that. In October UBS said it planned to cut about 10 000 jobs and retreat from most fixed-income trading after Switzerland set capital rules for its biggest lenders that are almost double international minimums agreed to by the Basel Committee on Banking Supervision.

Citigroup and Bank of America, the two US lenders that received the most aid, have been selling foreign operations and scaling back businesses. RBS, majority owned by the British government since being bailed out in 2008, said it would close or sell its cash equities, mergers advisory and equity capital markets divisions.

The Fed’s plan is part of a trend by national regulators since the crisis to ensure they can protect local depositors and creditors of global financial institutions in the event of a failure. Even the International Monetary Fund and the Basel committee, which have sought to foster global finance, have had to adapt their approaches or have been overruled by national and regional interests.

“Globalisation of financial markets took us decades to build, it doesn’t look like it’s going to take us decades to reverse the trend, does it?” Charles Dallara, the managing director of the Institute of International Finance, which represents more than 450 financial institutions, said last week.

Switzerland, whose banking system is five times the size of the economy, proposed in 2010 to give priority to the domestic units of its two largest lenders if they fail, indicating that overseas businesses might be left on their own. In the UK, where bank assets are also five times gross domestic product, regulators have said they planned to require lenders based in Britain to insulate domestic consumer-banking businesses from investment-banking and foreign operations.

“The likelihood that some home-country governments of significant international firms will backstop their banks’ foreign operations in a crisis appears to have diminished,” Tarullo said. “It also appears that constraints have been put on the ability of the home offices of some large international banks to support their foreign operations.” – Bloomberg


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