The British dislike of state ownership of big enterprises remains as hard-wired into the ruling psyche as it was in the days of Tell Sid. Look no further for evidence than the saga of Lloyds and RBS, where the ground is clearly being prepared for full privatisation as soon as possible.
Few credible people are talking about creating a not-for-profit lending utility, despite the fact that the banks’ profit motive must take a large share of the blame for the depression. Instead newspaper quotes from unnamed sources are piling up like snowdrifts, indicating that privatisation discussions are moving apace within the Treasury.
Stephen Hester, the chief executive of RBS, recently hoped aloud that his bank would be ready for returning fully to the private sector next year. Vince Cable has been threatening that the Scots would be deprived of participating in any RBS sell-off should they vote to quit the United Kingdom. Many commentators now think that the UK Government will make a move this side of the 2015 general election.
It is easy to see the sense of doing this from a political point of view. The Coalition would be able to say that it had wiped out one of the most symbolic stains from the economic crisis, all the more important given that it will probably be open season on the rest of their economic achievements come the election.
There are a couple of problems, however. First, both banks’ share prices are too low. Lloyds Banking Group is trading at 49.41p at the time of writing, 24p below the average price the government paid in 2008/09. Were the 39% stake sold today, the country would be booking a loss of about £6.5bn. And that’s nothing compared to RBS. Were that 82% stake sold today, it would lose the country £18.6bn.
This means that on the £65bn investment in the two banks, we would lose about £25bn. (This would rise further if you wanted to get into totting up the damage the state has incurred as a stakeholder from the payment protection insurance and libor scandals, for example, or the quantitative easing cash injections that have gone straight into bank speculation and hence bonuses.)
A second problem with reprivatisation is that if the government sells its entire shareholdings in one move, it will massively destabilise supply and demand of the shares. This would likely force them to sell at a big discount to get the deals away.
This is particularly a problem with RBS, where the government stake is worth over £26 billion. As far as I can work out, that would be the biggest share placing in history. To put it in context, the biggest flotation was General Motors in 2010, which after it came out of US state ownership to list for around £15bn.
The favoured solution seems to be one that a London small financial services company called Portman Capital has been touting for a while. It originally punted the idea to the Labour Government in the days after the rescues, but they took the view that financial regulation would need reformed before sell-offs would be possible.
Portman then got the Lib Dems interested a couple of years ago, who in turn seem to have successfully sold it to the Treasury. In the next part of the process of making it palatable to the public, the Tory-leaning Policy Exchange think tank is gearing up to publish a report extolling the idea in the coming weeks.
The Portman idea works like this: instead of selling the shares direct, the government hands them to taxpayers who have registered an interest. Depending on how many signed up, each might get, say, a £900 allocation, though it wouldn’t be their money as such.
This would reflect the value of the shares at a floor price that would be chosen by the Treasury, below which they couldn’t be sold. If they rose above this level, the taxpayer could offload them and pocket the increase.
Policymakers reckon that this scheme would get around the problem of dropping a huge quantity of shares on the market at one time because different people would choose to sell at different prices. It also looks like a neat way of diffusing the blame for selling the stake way below what the government paid, since unlike Northern Rock’s controversial sell-off last year, taxpayers will each choose when to sell their own allocation.
Of course the government could choose not to undersell by doing the ‘giveaways’ once the share prices had risen to their rescue levels, but it looks highly unlikely that this will happen. The government also seems to be planning to keep back maybe a quarter of its RBS stake to sell directly. On that chunk, the taxpayer would obviously see no upside.
It is hard to argue that this Portman plan sounds like a good one, at least once you accept state ownership is not on the cards. The government gets to play Santa, the taxpayer gets some money back and the RBS/Lloyds share price probably does not freefall.
This latter attraction might also give the banks the option of launching share issues, which would provide badly needed capital to meet new tougher regulatory requirements, particularly in the case of RBS.
On the other hand, Vince Cable’s idea that Scottish taxpayers could be left out looks very dubious. Aside from the fact that RBS is still (kind of) a Scottish bank, my understanding is that Portman Capital specifically designed the plan to work regardless of what the Scots voted in a referendum.
It is difficult to see how the UK could legally deny the Scots their share, particularly given that we would still be part of the union if the UK Government did insist on doing the deals before the 2015 general election.
The final question is whether this timescale makes sense, which depends on how you look at the banks. If you believe their narrative that Lloyds in particular is almost out of the woods and RBS has only a few more corners to turn, you would probably question why do it when the economy is still so weak.
Once it was strong and banks were again making decent profits from lending, the bank shares would be worth much more. An early sell-off would mean the taxpayer was paying the price for political impatience.
If you think that the banks are still storing up big problems, however, you might take a different view. For those that think everything is now out in the open, it’s worth noting that that the Financial Services Authority is currently investigating whether the UK banks are guilty of forbearance – the act of ignoring bad debts so that you don’t have to book them on your balance sheet.
Moreover, interest rates remain at rock bottom. When they finally start rising, numerous debts that are only just manageable could turn bad. Question marks also persist over other bank assets such as eurozone sovereign bonds. Just when you thought the eurozone might be getting its act together, this week’s events in Cyprus are another reminder that the UK banks could still get clobbered by another continental blow-up.
If you see bleak times ahead, you might think we had better dump the banks before their shares plunge again. It’s worth bearing in mind that a year ago, the total loss to the taxpayer from the two investments was sitting at £39bn, £14bn more than now. On that basis, it might be better to let the Coalition give in to their worst political urges after all.
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