City & Corporate: Banks fight against Irish pledge

The UK banking industry is fighting a lobbying and PR battle against state guarantees of savings in Europe.

The industry wants to highlight the competitive disadvantages in the UK that it believes will result from Ireland's guarantee of all retail deposits and a similar move this week by Germany.

UK banking chiefs argue that state guarantees of savings create an uneven playing field, particularly given that Allied Irish Bank, Anglo Irish Bank and Bank of Ireland all have branches in the UK.

'The guarantee implicitly says that your money is safer in Irish banks,' said one senior bank comms source. 'We cannot talk ourselves into being a sovereign-rated institution and that is undoubtedly a challenge.'

The Irish banks themselves have not as yet used the issue as a platform for a concerted PR drive, but a marketing drive is well under way. Reports suggest that UK corporate clients are being specifically targeted by a number of Irish institutions.

The response from the UK industry has been co-ordinated by the British Banking Association (BBA), which has lobbied senior governmental figures about the issue.

'We have been in discussions with the Irish Government and have had constructive and continual conversations with the UK Government over the course of the week,' said director of PR Lesley McLeod.

Last Friday, the UK Government raised the limit of guaranteed funds to £50,000 from £35,000, but the industry is hoping for a clearer resolution.

The BBA's lobbying is part of wider efforts to encourage regulators to bring stability and liquidity to the market. For example, the BBA wrote to the International Accounting Standards Board twice last week to demand urgent changes to accounting rules.

The banks themselves have responded proactively, particularly HBOS and RBS, which have branches in Ireland. The two firms have argued their case in the media, issued press releases and lodged official applications for their Irish operations to join the scheme.

In the UK, the message has got through that the vast majority of the public are covered and a Northern Rock-style bank run has been avoided. 'You have to reiterate stability to the public,' one bank's head of media relations said. 'Make sure staff are equipped to answer questions and are very clear about the key message of the organisation. There is a temptation to increase savings rates to compensate, but that could look like panic.'

HOW I SEE IT - John Kiely MD, Smithfield

There are certainly concerns that these total state guarantees could lead to unfair competition. Interestingly, before last week there was not significant migration of funds. The raising of the UK guarantee to £50,000 has been well publicised and most people assume, rightly or wrongly, that whatever happens the Government will ensure that depositors won't lose out.

From a comms perspective the onus on restoring confidence in the banking system lies with the Government, as in this febrile atmosphere the banks are pretty powerless to do it on their own.

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