Hard on the heels of a £5bn loss by RBS came news of a £570 million loss at Lloyds HBOS. It all goes to preserve Gordon Brown’s reputation as the nation’s worst investment manager. He sold gold just before a huge bull run in the metal. He bought bank shares in time for a long run of losses. The taxpayers are still waiting for the share prices to return to the higher price Mr Brown paid for them.
There has been some discussion here of what should be done with the shares in RBS, with some contributors asking for my view. Assuming the government keeps RBS together in more or less its current form, there are four main options.
1. The government could give the shares to UK taxpayers or citizens, an equal number to each. We could then individually decide whether to hold or to sell. The bank would no longer sit on the state’s balance sheet or have recourse to the taxpayer from the day the shares were transferred.
This proposal has two major drawbacks. The first is the state spent £45 billion of our money on buying bank shares. On this model the state gets no money back for its largest holding, leaving a hole in the public accounts. The second is a large number of people might want to cash in their shares as soon as they could, depressing the share price badly and leaving them feeling cheated if they got very little for the shares in a disorderly market. It has the great benefit of privatising the bank quickly, and giving some prospect of some money to every family in the land.
2. The government could transfer the shares now to taxpayers as above, but say we cannot sell them until the RBS share price has risen above the government’s sale price. On sale we would have to surrender the government’s acquisition price of those shares to the government – or a large proportion of it. We would gain any profit above the reserved price. This model removes the objection to 1 that the state does not get any money back, and helps somewhat to create a more orderly market, by getting people used to the idea that they have to hold the shares for a time period.
3. The government could sell the shares in the market like the 1980s large privatisations. Some shares could be offered more cheaply to employees, and there could be a discount offer of a limited number of shares for each taxpayer interested. The state would get money back from the operation, and the bank would be transferred to the private sector.
4. The government could offer tranches of shares to control the impact of the large sales on the market. It could sell some tranches to strategic investors prepared to take minority stakes in a large global bank.
There is another approach which I tend to favour. The government could require the further break up of RBS. Individual assets and companies, like Citizens Bank, their US bank can be sold off individually. This route has several advantages. It reduces the scale of any individual sale. It creates more manageable units. It could create more competitive banks for the UK market if the main clearing operations were split up.