Sir John Vickers: HSBC's HQ decision backs up my capital idea

So HSBC is staying put and the man who was asked by the Government to make the banking system safer says it isn't safe enough.

The two stories happily land on the same day. Happily because they are linked.

Sir John Vickers told ITV News that HSBC's decision to keep its global headquarters in the UK is good, if unsurprising, news but he feels it reinforces the point he is trying to land about the need for banks to hold back more capital than the Bank of England proposes to.

Sir John is clear that, as it stands, the Bank of England is not requiring banks to hit exacting enough standards.

He sees the collapse in bank share prices over the last two months as proof there is still a question mark about how resilient banks in Britain and elsewhere in the world really are.

"In markets' eyes we're not there yet," he told me. "There is more work to do before we can say we've got a robust enough banking system."

So what are the implications of HSBC's decision to keep its headquarters in the UK?

In December the Bank of England revealed our seven biggest lenders have been stress-tested to the point of disaster and had pulled through. We were told that "the long march to ever more capital" had come to an end.

Sir John believes the march should continue, saying: "I just hope the Bank of England will regroup, reconsider, think again and move things upwards."

The good news is Sir John believes the problems of banks that are too big to fail has almost been "solved to a substantial degree".

Sir John's Independent Commission on Banking (ICB) was asked to look at ways of making the banking system safer and less dependent on taxpayer support.

In September 2011 its key recommendations were:

  • Banks "ring-fence" their traditional retail deposits and conventional lending from their riskier operations.

  • The biggest (and therefore the most risky) ring-fenced banks should be required to hold back an extra layer of capital - known as a "Systemic Risk Buffer" - to offset the risk of the loans they make and, if necessary, absorb losses.

The ICB set the additional Systemic Risk Buffer at 3% of a bank's Risk Weighted Assets and intended it to apply to six of our biggest lenders.

The graphic shows the level set for the Systemic Risk Buffer within the yellow band. Credit: Bank of England

Last month the Bank of England decided not to apply it to any of the lenders, a decision that has clearly upset Sir John.