The government has to be very careful in how it handles the Northern Rock situation. This morning on the Today programme there was a call for them to nationalise Northern Rock, offering no compensation to shareholders. That is not an attractive proposition for either taxpayers or the remaining shareholders. It could fall foul of the government’s general duty to be fair to the shareholders of a company it is lending money to and of EU competition rules if they then give the bank favoured access to funding. The shareholders would think they had been robbed, as the market currently ascribes a value to their shares. Taxpayers would be on the hook for the long haul, with a new owner with no expertise at running a mortgage bank and all the problems of nationalised industry control.
The problem has arisen because of the actions of the government so far. The current share price of Northern Rock is based on the continuation of loans from the Bank of England and the deposit protection put in place by the government. Those who think the shares have value must believe either the Bank of England will continue to lend the money for as long as necessary, or that there will be a private sector rescue which will ascribe value to the shares (which also probably requires some continuation of government/Bank of England support). In other words, in the immediate future the value of the shares is heavily influenced by what the government and the Bank do over the financing of Northern Rock. If Northern Rock were capable of refinancing its Bank of England loans in the private sector market it would resumably do so.
If the Bank of England is too generous in its loans and guarantees to Northern Rock, then a private buyer may well emerge who can make money out of the situation, benefitting from the taxpayer support. If the Bank is too severe in removing funding from the mortgage bank before there is a suitable alternative available then it retriggers the problems it has been trying to avert.
So what are the government’s options from here?
The first is the completion of a sale to the private sector that the shareholders accept. The government does have to set out what its position is on how much money will be lent to Northern Rock under new ownership for how long. Presumably the government’s interest in a sale is to reduce both the quantity and duration of the loans it makes to Northern Rock. The Chancellor should make an early statement so we the public and Parliament know, as well as presumably making some statement in the Sale Memorandum drawn up on behalf of Northern Rock shareholders. If a buyer can be found who has the balance sheet strength or the access to funding to repay all the current public loans, that would be ideal.
The second is to agree a schedule of repayments and lending reductions with the new Board of an independent Northern Rock, as they have to believe they can trade themselves out of their problems, and can gradually replace public sector loans with normal market borrowings.
The third is to impose a date for the repayment of some or all of the loans, and leave it to the Board of Northern Rock to decide how they are going to meet this, with or without a takeover or new partners.
It is difficult getting accurate information about this on the media. The BBC this morning told us that the Board of Northern Rock had resigned, and this meant a deal must be imminent otherwise Northern Rock was left without a board. Yet the Times says this morning that two new Non executive Directors joined the Chairman on the Board whilst Mr Applegarth, the outgoing CEO, had agreed to stay on for a further two months to help with the sale process. The Times on this occasion sounds more reliable than the BBC. That news is compatible with the view that there is no immediate deal but that serious negotiations are underway with a view to sell the bank. The deal will still need shareholder approval.
From the taxpayers point of view, we need to to be told why so much of our money has now been committed and how the Chancellor expects to get it back and when.
The immediate questions for him are:
1. Where did the ??25 billion advanced so far by the Bank of England come from?
2. What guarantees/ comfort letter has been issued by the Treasury to the Bank of England to enable it to take on so large a commitment in relation to its own size?
3. How long is the money going to be available to the Northern Rock?
4. How does the government envisage it being repaid?
5. When will there be a loan agreement which we the taxpayers can see, with the security, covenants and repayment schedules that one would expect in a large commercial loan?
It is high time Parliament was told more about this huge taxpayer commitment, now bigger than the annual defence budget.