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UK plans to make banks hold up to US$15b more capital

[LONDON] The Bank of England set out plans on Tuesday to require banks to hold a total of up to US$15 billion more capital as they start to lend more freely in a recovering economy, but stopped short of demanding immediate action.

The central bank said credit conditions in Britain had largely recovered from the financial crisis, and warned asset prices were vulnerable to a big rise in interest rates and emerging market risks, meaning banks needed an extra buffer. "With today's announcement, the basic amount of capital our system requires is settled," said Bank of England (BoE) Governor Mark Carney, setting out plans for top UK banks including HSBC , Lloyds, Barclays BARC.L and RBS. "By moving early, before risks are elevated, the FPC (Financial Policy Committee) expects to be able to vary the countercyclical capital buffer gradually," he added, referring to further changes the BoE may make to capital requirements at different stages of the economic cycle.

Mr Carney said the central bank didn't want to force banks to hold excessive amounts of capital. "While the benefits of increased resilience are clear, higher capital costs are ultimately passed on to borrowers," he said.

The BoE also released the results of annual 'stress tests'into how Britain's big seven lenders would deal with unexpected economic shocks.

This year the focus was on emerging market and trading risks, and Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS) and Standard Chartered both only passed thanks to steps they took to improve their capital ratios during the process, which lifted their leverage ratios above the minimum 3 per cent level.

The other five big lenders tested - HSBC, Barclays, Lloyds Banking Group, Santander and Nationwide - did not have to take action. "RBS was always still further behind in the journey but Lloyds and Barclays are fine, with no material threats of further capital raising or, in Lloyds case, growing dividends over time," Richard Buxton, CEO of Old Mutual Global Investors, a shareholder in RBS, Barclays & Lloyds, told Reuters.

Shares in Lloyds were up 2.8 per cent in early trading, with RBS, Barclays and Standard Chartered up about 2.2 per cent and HSBC up 1.3 per cent.

The BoE said it expected banks to hold a so-called counter-cyclical capital buffer (CCB) of 1 per cent during normal times, and was in the process of tweaking bank-specific requirements with a view to imposing this step-by-step from March.

The CCB aims to rein in risky lending at frothier stages of the credit cycle. It stands at zero currently, but the BoE has already required some banks to hold extra capital due to firm-specific risks. Some economists and banking analysts had expected the BoE to raise the CCB this month to 0.5 per cent.

The BoE also said it expected the banking sector as a whole to hold high-grade tier one equity capital of 13.5 per cent of risk-weighted assets by 2019, up from 13 per cent now - part of which would overlap with the capital required for the CCB.

The BoE has said it wanted to give banks more clarity about its long-run aims for the amount of capital they hold. Banks have complained that in the past, the BoE has unexpectedly piled on extra capital requirements, making it hard for them to lend or decide which lines of business to stay in.