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UK announces major overhaul of its financial sector in attempt to spur growth

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One Canada Square, at the heart of Canary Wharf financial district seen standing between the Citibank building and HSBC building on 14th October 2022 in London, United Kingdom.

Mike Kemp | In Pictures | Getty Images

The U.K. government on Friday announced extensive reforms to financial regulation that it says will overhaul EU laws that “choke off growth.”

The package of 30 measures includes a relaxation of the rule that requires banks to separate their retail operations from their investment arms. This measure — first introduced in the wake of the 2008 Financial Crisis — would not apply to retail-focused banks.

The government also confirmed it will review rules around the accountability of top finance executives — another post-2008 regulation. The Senior Managers Regime, introduced in 2016, means individuals at regulated firms can face penalties for poor conduct, workplace culture or decision-making.

Changes announced in the package, dubbed the Edinburgh Reforms, also include a review of rules on short-selling, how companies list on the stock exchange, insurers’ balance sheets and Real Estate Investment Trusts.

Finance Minister Jeremy Hunt said he wanted to ensure the U.K.’s status as “one of the most open, dynamic and competitive financial services hubs in the world.”

“The Edinburgh Reforms seize on our Brexit freedoms to deliver an agile and home-grown regulatory regime that works in the interest of British people and our businesses,” he said in a statement.

“And we will go further – delivering reform of burdensome EU laws that choke off growth in other industries such as digital technology and life sciences.”

The government is billing the reforms as a way to capitalize on freedoms offered by Brexit, stating that hundreds of pages of EU laws governing financial services will be replaced or scrapped.

Many argue that Britain leaving the EU has damaged the country’s financial competitiveness, with Reuters reporting that London lost billions of euros in daily stock and derivatives trading to EU exchanges following its departure from the bloc. Researchers at the London School of Economics said earlier this year that financial services will be among the sectors worst hit by Brexit.

Seeking to boost the U.K.’s sluggish economic growth has also become a priority for the government, with the country forecast to be on the brink of a long recession.

The previously-announced removal of the U.K. cap on bankers’ bonuses was one of the few policies announced by Hunt’s predecessor, Kwasi Kwarteng, that remained after his chaotic “mini budget.”

Kwarteng had promised a “Big Bang 2,” referring to the deregulation of the London Stock Exchange in the 1980s, which attracted a host of global banks and investment firms to the U.K. and rapidly increased the size of the City of London’s financial sector.

Another proposed reform would see regulators’ remit increased to include facilitating the competitiveness of the U.K. economy, particularly the financial services sector.

However, John Vickers, former chair of the Independent Commission on Banking, warned in a letter to the Financial Times this week that the “special favouring of the financial services sector … could be detrimental to it, as we all saw 15 years ago.”

Tulip Siddiq, the opposition Labour party’s shadow city minister, called the proposed reforms a “race to the bottom.”

“Introducing more risk and potentially more financial instability because you can’t control your backbenchers is this Tory government all over,” she said, referencing ongoing infighting within the ruling Conservative Party.

“Reforms such as Ring Fencing and the Senior Managers Regime were introduced for good reason. The City doesn’t want weak consolation prizes for being sold down the river in the Tories’ Brexit deal, nor more empty promises on deregulation.”

Kay Swinburne, vice chair of KPMG UK’s financial services practice, told CNBC in emailed comments that the reforms were a “step closer to making regulation more efficient rather than a race to the bottom.”

“While the majority of these reforms have been trailed before, they represent a step towards futureproofing the competitiveness and long-term growth of the UK’s Financial Services industry while seeking to maintain standards.”

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