Can you cap the banks? Our writers make the case for and against Labour leader Ed Miliband's plans to limit their market share

 

It happened with energy prices, and now it's happened with banks. Every time Ed Miliband comes up with a policy that crimps the free market's tendency to behave like a monopoly, big business goes apoplectic and the left wave their Socialist Worker banners in delight.

His plan to limit the market share of UK banks, set to be fleshed out on Friday, created the usual reactions.

Corporate cheerleaders like the former Chancellor Lord Lawson said it was wrong to curb the private sector. That there is already enough competition among the high street banks. Sir Philip Hampton, chairman of the Royal Bank of Scotland (itself, of course, one of the big banks) rather predictably agreed.

However, similar rules to those expected to be proposed by the Labour leader are already in operation in the US, where customer service is said to be good, so we decided to pit our New York correspondent, a lover of the American way, against our UK banking reporter by asking them the question: 'could Ed's plan make Britain better?'.

Mark McSherry: Yes, we should learn from our past mistakes

A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush – that would appear to be the philosophy of many Americans when it comes to dealing with banks.

While millions of consumers in the United States trust their incomes and savings with massive financial institutions, many still prefer to deal with local community banks. Last month the Bank of Bird-in-Hand in rural Pennsylvania, supported by Amish investors, opened its doors, having raised roughly $17m (£10m) in capital and having been approved by regulators that include the United States' Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation.

It was the first new bank to be opened in the United States in almost three years. It made the news.

As a general rule, US banks are not allowed to grow above 10 per cent of nationwide deposits through acquisitions, but are allowed to grow above that level if they do it organically, under their own steam, said Brad Hintz, an analyst at Sanford Bernstein.

"It makes it impossible for the biggest banks to go out and acquire a regional bank and take their market share up dramatically by that," he adds. Wells Fargo, Bank of America and JPMorgan have been able to grow their deposits slightly above 10 per cent organically but consolidation in the US still has a long, long way to go until it gets to the British situation.

Anyone who believes there will not be financial crises in the future is delusional. When the next crisis happens, would it make any sense if a handful of UK banks control three-quarters of Britons' deposits? Of course it wouldn't.

To the big shots in the City of London, it might seem a bit backward for so many tiny community banks to exist in the US. Well, maybe Britain can learn from these people in rural America. And maybe more Brits need to learn the valuable lesson of "once bitten, twice shy".

Nick Goodway: No, they will almost certainly shed the poorest customers

"They would say that, wouldn't they?" is the obvious reaction to the banks' angry response to Labour's plans to force a greater break-up of their market.

Ed Miliband is, quite rightly, attacking an industry which is still widely despised and hated. He is uncertain as to what the market share cap should be or indeed of which market. If, as his advisers have been guiding, he is not looking at 25 per cent, or current accounts, mortgages or branches, it could be only taxpayer-controlled RBS which is actually caught in his net. We'll find out more on Friday, perhaps.

Having more players does not always mean more competition. There have been four big supermarkets in this country for years and there is no shortage of competition between them.

But as Labour finalises its policies it should look out for unintended consequences.

Forcing banks to cap how many customers they can have would almost certainly mean they shed the poorest. That could see Labour actually increase the proportion of "unbankable" consumers, in turn, driving more people into the arms of loan sharks and payday lenders.

Also, privately, bankers say they want fewer branches, not more and are happy to shed bricks and mortar as banking is increasingly done online.

The practical side of selling off branches should not be overlooked either. Both Lloyds and RBS struggled to try to sell their branches as ordered by the EU for receiving state aid. Both ended up with compromise agreements in TSB and Williams & Glyn's. And don't underestimate the biggest glitch factor of any sell-off : the banks' antiquated IT systems.

Finally, banks could simply respond to tough market-share rules by ending their current "free banking, if in credit" current accounts. That hardly looks a vote winner.

Suggested Topics
Travel
travel
News
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014
peopleTim Vine, winner of the Funniest Joke of the Fringe award, has nigh-on 200 in his act. So how are they conceived?
News
Jamie and Emily Pharro discovering their friend's prank
video
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift crawls through the legs of twerking dancers in her 'Shake It Off' music video
musicEarl Sweatshirt thinks so
PROMOTED VIDEO
News
Our resilience to stress is to a large extent determined by our genes
science
Travel
travel
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Sport
sportBesiktas 0 Arsenal 0: Champions League qualifying first-leg match ends in stalemate in Istanbul
News
Pornography is more accessible - and harder to avoid - than ever
news... but they still admit watching it
Arts and Entertainment
The eyes have it: Kate Bush
musicKate Bush asks fans not to take photos at London gigs
News
i100
News
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Extras
indybest
Sport
Manchester United are believed to have made a £15m bid for Marcos Rojo
sportWinger Nani returns to Lisbon for a season-long loan as part of deal
News
news
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
O'Toole as Cornelius Gallus in ‘Katherine of Alexandria’
filmSadly though, the Lawrence of Arabia star is not around to lend his own critique
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Money & Business

Junior Database developer (SQL, T-SQL, Excel, SSRS, Crystal rep

£25000 - £30000 per annum + bonus+benefits+package: Harrington Starr: Junior D...

Java/Calypso Developer

£600 - £800 per day: Harrington Starr: Java/Calypso Developer Java, Calypso, ...

Quantitative Developer

£700 per day: Harrington Starr: Quantitative Developer C++, Python, STL, R, PD...

Web developer (C#, MVC4, HTML5, CSS3, Javascript, Jquery)

£30000 - £44000 per annum + Bonus+Benefits+Package: Harrington Starr: Web deve...

Day In a Page

Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness

A descent into madness in America's heartlands

David Usborne arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to be greeted by a scene more redolent of Gaza and Afghanistan
BBC’s filming of raid at Sir Cliff’s home ‘may be result of corruption’

BBC faces corruption allegation over its Sir Cliff police raid coverage

Reporter’s relationship with police under scrutiny as DG is summoned by MPs to explain extensive live broadcast of swoop on singer’s home
Lauded therapist Harley Mille still in limbo as battle to stay in Britain drags on

Lauded therapist still in limbo as battle to stay in Britain drags on

Australian Harley Miller is as frustrated by court delays as she is with the idiosyncrasies of immigration law
Lewis Fry Richardson's weather forecasts changed the world. But could his predictions of war do the same?

Lewis Fry Richardson's weather forecasts changed the world...

But could his predictions of war do the same?
Kate Bush asks fans not to take photos at her London gigs: 'I want to have contact with the audience, not iPhones'

'I want to have contact with the audience, not iPhones'

Kate Bush asks fans not to take photos at her London gigs
Under-35s have rated gardening in their top five favourite leisure activities, but why?

Young at hort

Under-35s have rated gardening in their top five favourite leisure activities. But why are so many people are swapping sweaty clubs for leafy shrubs?
Tim Vine, winner of the Funniest Joke of the Fringe award: 'making a quip as funny as possible is an art'

Beyond a joke

Tim Vine, winner of the Funniest Joke of the Fringe award, has nigh-on 200 in his act. So how are they conceived?
The late Peter O'Toole shines in 'Katherine of Alexandria' despite illness

The late Peter O'Toole shines in 'Katherine of Alexandria' despite illness

Sadly though, the Lawrence of Arabia star is not around to lend his own critique
Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire: The joy of camping in a wetland nature reserve and sleeping under the stars

A wild night out

Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire offers a rare chance to camp in a wetland nature reserve
Comic Sans for Cancer exhibition: It’s the font that’s openly ridiculed for its jaunty style, but figures of fun have their fans

Comic Sans for Cancer exhibition

It’s the font that’s openly ridiculed for its jaunty style, but figures of fun have their fans
Besiktas vs Arsenal: Five things we learnt from the Champions League first-leg tie

Besiktas vs Arsenal

Five things we learnt from the Champions League first-leg tie
Rory McIlroy a smash hit on the US talk show circuit

Rory McIlroy a smash hit on the US talk show circuit

As the Northern Irishman prepares for the Barclays, he finds time to appear on TV in the States, where he’s now such a global superstar that he needs no introduction
Boy racer Max Verstappen stays relaxed over step up to Formula One

Boy racer Max Verstappen stays relaxed over step up to F1

The 16-year-old will become the sport’s youngest-ever driver when he makes his debut for Toro Rosso next season
Fear brings the enemies of Isis together at last

Fear brings the enemies of Isis together at last

But belated attempts to unite will be to no avail if the Sunni caliphate remains strong in Syria, says Patrick Cockburn
Charlie Gilmour: 'I wondered if I would end up killing myself in jail'

Charlie Gilmour: 'I wondered if I'd end up killing myself in jail'

Following last week's report on prison suicides, the former inmate asks how much progress we have made in the 50 years since the abolition of capital punishment