Why People Hate the BBC

There is an active campaign to “defund the BBC”, i.e. strip it of its license fee. Having watched a programme they broadcast on the 25th of January one can understand why. The programme was entitled “The Decade the Rich Won” and its key proposition was that the effect of QE following the banking crisis of 2008 was to make the rich richer while the poor suffered.

This joint BBC/Open University production pretended to be a documentary of the financial crisis and subsequent events. It included a number of interviews with major personalities involved such as Mervyn King, Alastair Darling, Nick Clegg, George Osborne and Guy Hands but also a few nonentities. It appeared to have been carefully edited to present a slanted view of history and in effect an attack on capitalism.

The purpose of QE was to increase economic activity by providing more liquidity to banks and this is what it did. As Mervyn King said it prevented a great depression as we had in the 1930s. Guy Hands said it was the right decision but it had unintended consequences. The problem was it inflated asset values as money was pumped into the economy.

That of course meant that those who owned assets such as buildings or company shares became wealthier. But it is wrong to suggest that just benefited the rich and hedge fund managers as the programme implied. In reality anyone with a pension scheme or who owned a house tended to benefit, i.e. a large percentage of the population. And those who did not at least had their employment protected by the economy being supported rather than being allowed to decline with job losses following.

There was a clear attack on the big banks and their owners although nobody mentioned that the owners of banks such as RBS and others suffered from full or part nationalisation (i.e. confiscation of their assets).

There was no discussion about what else the Government and Bank of England could have done instead.

This programme was a polemic against the bankers and asset owners of all kinds. It was likely to encourage a very distorted view of history as opposed to being an unbiased analysis of the financial difficulties of the era covered.

It looked like a left-wing socialist manifesto in essence by implying the rich toffs escaped the economic crisis while everyone else suffered. That’s not the reality.

Roger Lawson (Twitter: https://twitter.com/RogerWLawson  )

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Royal Bank of Scotland on BBC2

Some readers may have watched the BBC2 programme on Tuesday about the collapse of the Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS). It showed the hubris of Fred Goodwin – suites at the Ritz, private jets and a new headquarters opened by the Queen in which he had an enormous office. But when I posted a brief comment on the Stockopedia blog to the effect that the bail out had political overtones, it got some criticism. Indeed to my mind the programme seemed to suggest that Alistair Darling and Mervyn King were heroes who rescued the bank, and the country, from financial disaster and there was no contrary opinion on the merits of what they did.

So here’s some more explanation of the problems of RBS and how they should have been tackled.

RBS certainly was acting aggressively before the crash in 2008. It had one of the lowest capital asset ratios of any bank and then proceeded to acquire ABN-AMRO after competing with Barclays in a bidding war. RBS seemed to expect the profits from ABN-AMRO to improve its cash flow. Although it’s not easy to see the cash flows in banks, they can run out of cash particularly when loans they have borrowed become due for repayment.

One needs to understand that all banks operate on a knife edge – they have massive liabilities backed by massive assets, with only a thin slice of shareholders equity in the middle. So you will find in the December 2008 balance sheet of RBS that it had assets of £2,401,652 million, liabilities of £2,321,154 million and shareholders’ equity of only £80,498 million.

When the financial crisis arose as a result of the realisation that the US sub-prime mortgage market was heading for a fall, liquidity in the bank loan market disappeared. That is what caused the crash at Northern Rock – see: https://roliscon.blog/2017/09/02/northern-rock-10-years-after-collapse/ for past comments on that. Northern Rock was not balance sheet insolvent which would have triggered administration, it was cash flow insolvent. It just ran out of cash because folks were withdrawing cash from the bank and it could not refinance the short-term loans it had taken out in the money markets. Similar problems caused the collapse of Lehman Bros and Bradford & Bingley and the former had world-wide repercussions. The whole world was suffering a banking liquidity crisis.

There were of course subsequent steps taken to tighten up on the bank asset ratios which meant they had to raise more capital. That put many banks into an even more difficult situation. There also was a growing realisation that many banks had assets on their balance sheet that were questionable in value, i.e. debts might not be repaid but they had not been written down because of defective accounting standards (see more in today’s FT on that subject).

In addition the UK Government made the mistake of nationalising Northern Rock and Bradford & Bingley which told any international investor of equity, or even debt, into UK banks that they had no real security. The Government could prejudice their investment using the new legislation that was introduced, at the drop of a hat.

As the BBC programme described, there came a day when RBS had to tell the Governor of the Bank of England that they would run out of cash in a few hours. The collapse of RBS would certainly have undermined the whole UK banking system with other banks also crashing as they had outstanding loans to RBS. The Government’s answer was to launch a massive “recapitalisation” of RBS and other banks via forcing then to sell equity stakes in return for cash. They were given no option but to accept overnight. This effectively meant a nationalisation of RBS because they acquired control of it, along with major stakes in other banks.

Was there a different way they could have taken? Banks frequently run out of cash because of the narrow equity they hold. They can go for years without a hiccup, paying out good returns to shareholders in the meantime, until minor events disrupt this idyll. But the Bank of England can always provide loans to relieve the cash flow pressure if nobody else will. The Bank can of course effectively print money if necessary to do that. RBS did of course undertake a massive rights issue (the largest ever) to strengthen its balance sheet but that was not sufficient. Could they have got by with funding from the Bank of England when the crunch came? I suggest they might. I suggest the prime reason for the approach that was taken was the desire of the Labour Government (headed by Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling) to take control of the banking sector.

In reality other countries tackled their similar problems in different ways. But the UK was the most severely hit by the financial crisis. It was of course not just RBS that had exposure to US sub-prime mortgages. Other major world banks had similar difficulties. But the approach taken in the UK destroyed confidence in the UK financial sector in very short order.

That does not of course make any excuse for the mismanagement of RBS by Fred Goodwin and the general incompetence of the board of RBS in the critical period. But it is all too easy to lay the blame for the UK banking crisis on one individual – it’s called “personification”. But there were no heroes either.

Roger Lawson (Twitter: https://twitter.com/RogerWLawson )

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