Business

Has the casino swallowed Barclays?

BBC business editor Robert Peston on Bob Diamond's appointment

I asked a leading member of the government what he thought about Bob Diamond's appointment as chief executive of Barclays.

"Bank taken over by casino," he said. Which implies he has the odd reservation about the rise and rise of Mr Diamond.

This is not to suggest that he and his ministerial colleagues are implacably opposed to all bankers.

After all, the government will confirm this afternoon that arguably the UK's most prominent banker, Stephen Green, is joining their ranks as the new trade minister.

But Barclays is the bank that causes most angst to ministers, central bankers and regulators.

In one way, it looks like a great British success story.

Thanks to the well-timed purchase of the US arm of bankrupt Lehman Bros in the autumn of 2008 and years of recruitment and investment, Barclays now owns one of the world's biggest and most successful investment banks in the form of Barclays Capital.

What's more, Barclays weathered 2008's worst financial crisis in living memory far better than RBS and Lloyds: although Barclays needed to raise a colossal amount of new capital to protect itself against losses, it obtained the necessary funds from Middle East sovereign investors rather than British taxpayers.

That said, Barclays benefitted from emergency loans and guarantees provided by the Treasury and the Bank of England.

It was, in that sense, a beneficiary of the government's assessment that Barclays is too big and important to the UK economy to be allowed to fail.

And that, for prominent politicians in all the main parties and the Bank of England, is what matters.

Their view is that Mr Diamond has built the success of Barclays Capital in part on the ability of the investment bank to raise finance at cheaper rates than would be available if creditors didn't believe that Barclays as a whole would always be rescued in a crisis by taxpayers.

So they argue that taxpayers are - in effect- subsidising Barclays Capital's more speculative activities.

And they would say that it is wholly wrong for the state to facilitate what they see as gambling by Barclays Capital.

Even if Barclays Capital has a record of winning far more often than it loses, it sticks in the craw for many that the huge bonuses earned by Mr Diamond and his colleagues are arguably generated to an extent thanks to the state safety net.

Barclays will argue that the importance of the protection provided by taxpayers has been overstated.

Which, in part, is why the Chancellor, George Osborne, has created a high-powered commission, to adjudicate on whether so-called universal banks, which like Barclays combine retail and investment banking, should be broken up.

One uncertainty has been cleared up by the appointment of Mr Diamond, the living, breathing, Chelsea-supporting epitome of the modern investment banker: if there were a scintilla of doubt about how Barclays sees its future, it's clear that (left to its own devices) Barclays would grow and grow as a universal bank, with the bonus-culture of investment banking increasingly dominant.

Were the banking commission to recommend the break up of the bank and were that recommendation to be accepted by the chancellor, then I would expect Mr Diamond to relocate the bank's domicile and head office to New York and the traditional UK retail bank would be demerged in whole or in part.

Barclays preference, I am told, would be to retain majority control of its British high street banking business. But Barclays in the round would in those circumstances be an institution much more focussed on providing services to big companies and Investors rather than millions of individuals.

Oh, and there's another unavoidable implication of Diamond Bob's triumph. A banker who has pocketed £100m from the day job may find it tricky to heed the call from the Mayor of London that bankers should subsist on meagre rations till we're all back in the money.

You can keep up with the latest from business editor Robert Peston by visiting his blog on the BBC News website.

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