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: 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: )

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