Banking reform, and the importance of ownership: how the way banks are owned affects their behaviour

  • Michael Wilkinson

Student thesis: Phd


Despite claims made by the UK Government in 2015 that the process of banking reform had come to an end, the debate about how to reform banks very much continues. There is now an increasing willingness to question both whether banks should be owned by, and run for, their shareholders, and whether the role they play in creating and allocating credit can safely be left to be determined solely by private interests. Where banking reform goes from here is not entirely certain. It could even be said to have reached something of a fork in the road. The obvious way open to us is to continue down the path forged by the neoliberal agenda, trusting market forces to determine credit-creation and allocation, and continuing to champion the banking sector as a sort of national treasure to be preserved in its own right. An alternative course could be to more radically control what banks do, to have more of a say about what activities they should finance more or less generously and to treat the sector not as an end in itself, but more as a means, an essential engine for economic growth which needs to be more carefully controlled and driven. Whichever way we go from here, the question of 'ownership' and whether it needs to be reformed remains relevant. Indeed, it is doubtful whether banks can really be trusted to behave themselves and to serve our interests if the requirement to maximise shareholder returns provides conflicting incentives for them to be reckless, self-serving and exploitative. Ultimately, how important the issue of ownership is depends upon how far the way banks are owned drives them to misbehave. This thesis seeks to explore that relationship and its relevance to banking reform. It does so by looking at how pressures arising from the way banks are owned encourage bad strategic decisions and bad behaviours in a number of UK banks. It conducts case studies of two stakeholder-owned banks and two shareholder-owned banks, and analyses a body of evidence which tends very strongly to suggest that the way banks are owned is indeed liable to contribute towards the adoption of unsafe strategies, and bad behaviours. The thesis proceeds to argue that we still need to tackle this 'ownership' problem which continues to drive much of the dysfunctionality in banking. Fixing 'ownership' will not necessarily ensure that credit is created in sensible quantities and allocated in sensible ways where needed in the economy, and it will not be the only reform needed to discourage bad behaviour. It is however a necessary reform, and one which still needs to be made. The entire notion that banks are owned by and should be run for their shareholders needs radically to be reigned in, and we need to be far more experimental and creative in exploring ways of making banks act more like stewards or trustees administering other people's assets - and in safe and productive ways which are in fitting with the interests of the state, its citizens and tax-payers. This thesis explores ways of doing that by making banks more 'ownerless', including creating any National Investment Bank, such as that recently proposed by the Labour Party, as a truly 'ownerless' institution.
Date of Award1 Aug 2018
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • The University of Manchester
SupervisorJulie Froud (Supervisor) & Karel Williams (Supervisor)


  • Shareholder value governance
  • Stakeholder governance
  • Co-operative banks
  • Mutual banks
  • Ethical banking
  • Ownerlessness
  • Corporate governance
  • Ownership models
  • Banking reform
  • Not-for-profit banking

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