As predicted, RBS continued its glittering run of losses. There is no whiff of a dividend for long suffering taxpayers in our role as forced shareholders.
According to the bank it deserves applause. They could, they argue, have lost so much more. They have, they proudly tell us, shrunk the assets from an eye popping £2.2 trillion to a tidy £1.5 trillion. I seem to remember them saying they would slim down to a mere £1.2 trillion, but that seems to have been yesterday’s plan, not today’s. They rejoice in telling us Investment banker bonuses are down this year compared to last.
I think taxpayers will find this all very difficult to stomach. The banker bonuses are down, but so are the profits of the Investment Bank. Meanwhile base pay for some is up according to the media, at a time when people in other loss making businesses are usually told there will be no pay rise whilst the company is trying to make a profit. What’s so different about RBS? Well, it has the government and taxpayers bankrolling it. RBS tell me the top paid people did have a pay freeze.
They lost money in Greece, and they lost money in Ireland. What part of the Euro crisis were they unable to forecast? They tell us the core bank is now profitable and successful. So are the other main private sector clearers in the UK. Given the charges and loan rates they impose againmst a background of very low official rates, it would be surprising if they managed to lose money.
Slimming a balance sheet is not necessarily a difficult task. RBS has large trading book positions and large positions in derivatives. These should be wound down by netting off, by sales, by allowing expiry of contracts. Taxpayers should not be running these sort of risks on the scale of RBS. Any competent financier should be able to do this in an orderly way. Bad loan books do require skill in handling and some patience. Good bankers know which loans will never be recovered, and close them down promptly, whilst cutting some slack to borrowers who may be able to change their fortunes and honour their debts.
What should be done with RBS? It should be broken up. The government should create three good UK banks out of the assets and liabilities of RBS, and float them off. They should raise new private sector capital as they go. The government could even get some money back for them if it constructed them sensibly. Taxpayers would be left with the bad bank, which would need continuing Treasury guarantees: we already own these doubtful assets and have to stand behind them anyway.
An alternative proposal is to give the shares to UK taxpayers. Taxpayers would only be able to sell them when they were above a specified price, and would have to send a specified part of the profit to the Treasury. This scheme looked sensible when the RBS share price was higher. The taxpayers could have sold above the government’s purchase price, and reimbursed the government on sale for the whole of the government’s purchase cost. That all looks fanciful at the moment, as RBS shares are so far below the UK government’s purchase level.
Meanwhile, back in the real world, we seem to be lumbered with the idea that the whole of RBS is going to be turned around, and in due course taxpayers will be able to get their money back by selling the shares. Looking at the last two year’s results, that is all a long way away. RBS is not a natural unified bank. It is an ugly congomerate of interests that do not fit together. It has done itself no favours by its handling of the rewards of the Investment bankers, and creaming off too much of their profit at a time when large losses are being made elsewhere in the Group. If the Investment bankers want to make loads of money they should buy their bank off the taxpayer, and then they could pay themselves what they like. All the time they are punting with taxpayers money, and are part of a loss making group, their remuneration will be a highly charged political issue.
RBS in its current form does not look like proof that capitalism does not work. It looks like proof that socialism just generates bad results and disappointment, as yet another nationalised company gets into the habit of living on subsidy and delivering losses.