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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Labour’s Plans For Confiscation of Shares and Rail System Renationalisation

Jeremy Corbyn made it clear in a speech last night that the rich will be under attack if Labour gets into power. John McDonnell, Shadow Chancellor, will present his plans today to give 10% of shares in all larger companies to employees over a period of years. The Daily Telegraph described it as a Marxist plot to control businesses while Carolyn Fairburn of the CBI attacked it as a “new tax that adds to the impression that Labour sees business as a bottomless pit of funding”. The proposal seems to be based on setting up a trust for employees into which the shares would be deposited and from where dividends would be paid to employees.

Comment: It will certainly dilute existing shareholders so readers of this blog might find they and the pension funds that invest in shares are proportionally poorer. Although it sets a bad principle, if the numbers being proposed are enacted it might not have a major impact on companies or investors. Enabling employees to have a financial interest in the profits of a company is quite a sensible idea in many ways. But it might simply encourage companies to take their business elsewhere. If they are registered in another country, how will the UK Government enforce such legislation?

Last week Chris Grayling, Transport Secretary, announced a review of the privatised rail system. That follows the recent problems with new timetables where the regulator concluded that “nobody took charge”. John McDonnell said that he could renationalise the railways within five years if Labour wins the next election – it’s already a manifesto commitment. Perhaps he thinks he can solve the railway’s problems by doing so but this writer suggests the problem is technology rather than management, although cost also comes into the equation.

The basic problem is that the railways are built on inflexible and expensive old technology. There has never been a “timetable” problem on the roads because there are no fixed timetables – folks just do their own thing and travel when they want to do so.

Consider the rail signalling system – an enormously expensive infrastructure to ensure trains don’t run into each other and to give signals to train drivers. We do of course have a similar system at junctions on roads – they are called traffic lights. But they operate automatically and are relatively cheap. Most are not even linked in a network as train signals are required to be.

Trains run on tracks so they are extremely vulnerable to breakdowns of trains and damage to tracks – even snow, ice or leaves on the line cause disruption – who ever heard of road vehicles being delayed by leaves? A minor problem on a train track, often to signals, can quickly cause the whole line or network to come to a halt. Failing traffic signals on roads typically cause only slight delays and vehicles can drive around any broken-down cars or lorries.

The cost of changes to a rail line are simply enormous, and the cost of building them also. For example, the latest estimate for HS2 – the line from London to Birmingham is more than £80 billion. The original M1 was completed in 1999 at a cost of £26 million. Even allowing for inflation, and some widening and upgrading since then the total cost is probably less than £1 billion.

Changes to railway lines can be enormously expensive. For example, the cost of rebuilding London Bridge station to accommodate more trains was about £1 billion. These astronomic figures simply do not arise when motorways are revised or new service stations constructed.

Why invest more in a railway network when roads are cheaper to build and maintain, and a lot more flexible in use? At present the railways have to be massively subsidised by the Government out of taxation – about £4 billion per annum according to Wikipedia, or about 7.5p per mile of every train journey you take according to the BBC. Meanwhile road transport more than pays for itself and contributes billions to general taxation in addition from taxes on vehicle users.

So here’s a suggestion: scrap using this old technology for transport and invest more in roads. Let the railways shrink in size to where they are justifiable, or let them disappear as trams did for similar reasons – inflexible and expensive in comparison with buses.

No need to renationalise them at great expense. Spend the money instead on building a decent road network which is certainly not what we have at present.

Do you think that railways are more environmentally friendly? Electric trains may be but with electric road vehicles now becoming commonplace, that justification will no longer apply in a few years’ time, if not already.

Just like some people love old transport modes – just think canals and steam trains – the attachment to old technology in transport is simply irrational as well as being very expensive. Road vehicles take you from door-to-door at lower cost, with no “changing trains” or waiting for the next one to arrive. No disruption caused by striking guards or drivers as London commuters have seen so frequently.

In summary building and managing a road network is cheaper and simpler. It just needs a change of mindset to see the advantages of road over rail. But John McDonnell wants to take us back to 1948 when the railways were last nationalised. Better to invest in the roads than the railways.

It has been suggested that John McDonnell is a Marxist but at times he has denied it. Those not aware of the impact of Marxism on political thought would do well to read a book I recently perused which covered the impact of the Bolsheviks in post-revolutionary Russia circa 1919. In Tashkent they nationalised all pianos as owning a piano was considered “bourgeois”. They were confiscated and given to schools. One man who had his piano nationalised lost his temper and broke up the piano with an axe. He was taken to goal and then shot (from the book Mission to Tashkent by Col. F.M. Bailey).

Sometimes history can be very revealing. The same mentality that wishes to spend money on public transport such as railways as opposed to private transport systems, or renationalising the utility companies such as National Grid which is also on the agenda, shows the same defects.

The above might be controversial, but I have not even mentioned Brexit yet. Will the Labour Party support another referendum as some hope and Corbyn is still hedging his bets over? I hope not because I think the electorate is mightily fed up with the subject. In politics, as in business, you should take decisions and then move on. Going back and refighting old battles is not the way to succeed. All we should be debating is the form of Britain’s relationship with the EU after Brexit.

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

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Northern Rock 10 Years After

Both the Times and Financial Times covered the tenth anniversary of the nationalization of Northern Rock today. Dennis Grainger is still fighting to get some compensation for shareholders from the nationalization and says the Government stands to make billions of pounds profit from the bank after paying zero compensation to shareholders. He is undoubtedly right that the Government will turn a good profit on these events, as they always planned to do.

He and others such as Pradeep Chand described in an article in the FT Weekend supplement lost hundreds of thousands of pounds. Was the bank a basket case, or do they have a genuine grievance? The fact that they and other investors are still fighting for compensation ten years later tells you how aggrieved they feel. Mr Grainger hopes to put his case to Theresa May.

Incidentally the shareholders in Bradford and Bingley (B&B), led by David Blundell, are also still fighting a similar case over the nationalization without compensation of that company. The same legislation was used to do so.

As I was involved in the campaign and subsequent legal case, let me give you a few simple facts about the case:

Northern Rock was not balance sheet insolvent, but ran out of cash after a run on the bank by depositors (driven by media scare stories) and their inability to raise more money market funds (nobody was lending to anyone else at the time).

This would normally have caused the Bank of England to step in as “lender of last resort” to provide liquidity but then Governor Mervyn King declined to do so because of the “moral hazard” risk. That was a fatal mistake not likely to have been made by his predecessors.

The then Labour Government subsequently passed legislation to nationalise the bank and ensured there was no independent and fair valuation of the shares by writing the Nationalization Act with wording that ensured an abnormal and artificial valuation process which guaranteed a zero valuation. So the ensuing claims that it was a “fair and independent” valuation are nonsense. The Treasury is reported as repeating that claim in the FT article today.

In reality Labour politicians decided to ensure that two large hedge funds who had invested in the company and were willing to support it should get nothing because they were the kind of people they hated. Smaller shareholders in Northern Rock were not recognized as being of importance.

The nationalization legislation used against Northern Rock and B&B ensures that if the Government has lent any sum of money to a bank, then they can nationalize it without compensation. This made UK banks untouchable by many foreign lenders or investors with dire consequences later for other banks such as RBS. In the case of B&B they even concealed that they had lent it money until much later so as not to scare investors. Incidentally while that legislation is still available to the Government, that is one reason why I won’t be buying shares in UK banks – it increases their risk profile very substantially.

A legal case was pursued to the Supreme Court on the nationalization (a Judicial Review), but they would not overturn the will of Parliament. A claim to the European Court of Human Rights was submitted but they refused to even hear the case which was very unexpected as they had ruled in other nationalization cases that fair compensation should be given.

Those are the key facts and all the other mud that was slung at Northern Rock claiming it was a dubious business by a concerted campaign of disinformation was most unfortunate, and basically inaccurate.

A company that cannot meet its debts when they become due, and is hence cash flow insolvent, can be argued to be worth little. But there was funding available to Northern Rock (it was trading for months after the “run” and before it was nationalized). But salvage law sets a good precedent for what is fair compensation when someone rescues a sinking ship. The same should have applied to a sinking bank.

So in summary, I support the efforts of Dennis Grainger and others to get compensation to the ordinary shareholders out of the profits that have accrued to the Government as a result.

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

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