By Huw Jones
LONDON (Reuters) -Britain set out plans on Thursday to ease key banking and insurance rules in the latest attempt to boost its vital financial sector following the country’s departure from the European Union.
Brexit has cut off Britain’s finance industry, which accounts for about 12% of UK economic output, from much of the EU and sector officials want the government to speed up reforms to help it remain globally competitive.
London’s financial hub also faces tough competition from New York in company listings, and a survey on Thursday showed Singapore is now almost neck-and-neck with the British capital in global financial centre rankings.
Continuing with the “Edinburgh Reforms” outlined in December, the finance ministry set out a public consultation on proposed secondary legislation to implement recommendations made in a review conducted by a panel led by Keith Skeoch, a former investment fund boss.
The draft legislation proposes to increase the threshold at which so-called ring-fencing applies to banks from 25 billion pounds ($30 billion) to 35 billion pounds.
Britain introduced the ring-fencing rule in January 2019 following the costly taxpayer bailouts of banks during the global financial crisis over a decade ago. It aims to ensure that deposits are safe even if riskier investment banking activities – outside the ring fence – lose value. That adds costs for banks.
UK financial services minister Andrew Griffith said the planned changes would make the rule more adaptable and reduce the risk of unintended consequences.
“It will improve outcomes for banks and their customers, increase competition and improve the competitiveness of the UK banking sector,” Griffith said, adding the changes would also boost lending to smaller firms.
The government intends to put forward secondary legislation – a law created by ministers under powers provided by an act of Parliament – for implementing the reforms in early 2024, with the changes coming into effect as soon as they clear parliament.
Banking industry body UK Finance questioned the need for ring-fencing rules at all given significant changes made to aid the smooth closure of failing banks without taxpayer aid.
The Bank of England (BoE) on Thursday also set out a reform of Solvency II insurance capital rules that were inherited from the EU.
Their reform is seen by the insurance industry and by lawmakers who supported Britain’s exit from the bloc as a “Brexit dividend” to unlock up to 100 billion pounds ($122.01 billion) for investment, though the EU is also similarly reforming Solvency II.
A so-called matching adjustment gives capital relief on assets that will generate returns at the right time to cover future payouts to policyholders.
This relief, currently worth around 66 billion pounds, would cover a wider range of assets, such as infrastructure under construction, and sub-investment grade assets to a “prudent” level.
“These proposals aim to promote policyholder protection while enabling the annuity sector to meet its commitments to the government to increase investment in the UK economy,” Bank of England Deputy Governor Sam Woods said in a statement.
The government overrode the BoE to insist on a less onerous discount, and the BoE said the limit it has proposed, along with other proposed reforms, would not stop insurers from meeting their stated commitments for “unlocking tens of billions of pounds for potential investments at implementation”.
Woods has urged the government to monitor that insurers will use freed up capital from all the Solvency II reforms to invest in the economy.
The Association of British Insurers said on Thursday its members were committed to using the reforms to drive 100 billion pounds into “green and good” projects while protecting policyholders.
The change would come into effect on June 30, 2024.
($1 = 0.8196 pounds)
(Reporting by Huw JonesEditing by William Schomberg, Mark Potter and Susan Fenton)