The top financial brass from the Treasuries and central banks of Britain and the US are to take part in a war game, behind closed doors in Washington on Monday, to test how they would handle another Lehman Brothers-style banking crisis .
Six years after the financial earthquake that led to the multibillion-pound taxpayer bailouts of Royal Bank of Scotland and Lloyds Banking Group, the most senior policymakers from both sides of the Atlantic will try to find out whether they are now any better prepared for the collapse of a bank deemed too big to fail.
The chancellor, George Osborne, and Mark Carney, the governor of the Bank of England, will stay on at the end of the annual meetings of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank to head the UK team in the exercise, which is to be held at the offices of the Federal Deposit Insurance Commission – the organisation that guarantees US bank deposits.
They will be joined by 11 others, including the chairman of the Federal Reserve, Janet Yellen, the US treasury secretary, Jack Lew, and regulators from Britain and America, for a test of how the authorities would respond to two possible scenarios – the collapse of an American bank with UK operations and the failure of a British bank with operations in the US.
Although the war game will not be based on any specific institution, UK banks with operations in the US include Barclays and HSBC, while US investment banks such as Goldman Sachs and Bank of America have a big presence in the City.
Osborne said it was the first time a war game had been conducted at such a senior level. “We will work through how we would respond to the failure of a cross-border firm. We are going to make sure we could handle an institution previously regarded as too big to fail,” he said.
The decision by the US authorities to let Lehman collapse in September 2008 set off a chain reaction in financial markets that was only halted when governments around the world stepped in with taxpayers’ cash to recapitalise banks seen as at risk.
Monday’s game will involve the collapse of a single bank rather than the sort of systemic failure threatened in 2008. But Osborne said lessons had been learned from 2008, with policymakers now having options they lacked then.
The chancellor said he needed to be sure the government was better prepared for “what’s thrown at us and better prepared to protect taxpayers than the previous administration in the UK was”.
The last Labour government pumped more than £65bn into RBS and Lloyds in October 2008 but Osborne said “enormous progress” had been making on tackling the too-big-to-fail problem since then.
The war game is designed to stress-test the new domestic and global rules for regulating and supervising banks devised since 2008.
In the UK, the government has handed new watchdog powers to the City, ring-fenced the retail operations of banks from their investment arms and forced banks to hold more capital. At the global level, the Financial Stability Board, chaired by Carney, has been seeking to ensure financial regulation is consistent across borders.
Osborne said: “In 2008, the judgment of my predecessor and others was that banks like RBS were too big to fail. I want to make sure that either myself or my successors in this job would have real options and would avoid bailing in the taxpayer. I’m pretty confident that is the case.”
The chancellor said Monday’s event would try to pack into a morning a crisis that would unfold over several days.
“No war game is like war itself,” Osborne said. “But it means we will be far better prepared. I’m sure this is not the last time this will happen.”Monday’s war game will take place after the annual meeting of the International Monetary Fund in Washington in which the risk of a fresh recession in the euro zone has been a dominant theme.
Osborne said the problems of the euro zone posed “the biggest threat to the world and UK economies” and admitted that Britain was “not immune” to the deteriorating outlook for its biggest trading partner.
“This is a critical moment for the British economy and the world economy”, the chancellor said. “Serious clouds are gathering on the horizon”.
Osborne made it clear that he expected UK growth to slow as a result of its exposure to the euro zone. “There are risks to Britain’s growth from the euro zone and we are seeing some of them materialise”, he said.
The chancellor said that the euro zone finance ministers and central bank governors knew they were “under the microscope” in Washington. “They know they have some questions to answer.”
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