Category Archives: Financial arcana

Save, borrow, whatever

So the fairly essential cuts in interest rates are hitting savers. As a net saver, I can only say this is a good thing.

There are approximately four sorts of people in the UK, financially speaking:
1) people with no assets or liabilities. “The poor”.
2) people with houses and mortgages. “Hard-working families”.
3) people with some savings, no house and no mortgage. “People who noticed there was a bloody great house price bubble”.
4) people with houses, savings, and no mortgages. “Jammy sods”.

Cutting the interest rate benefits people in group 2, at the expense of groups 3 and 4. But the house price crash has massively disbenefited people in group 2, to the benefit (either now or at some point in the next couple of years) of people in group 3. The fact that we’ll lose out on interest in the short run is more or less irrelevant, since by next year our cash will be worth about 1.5x what it was in 2007 in terms of “how much house can you get?”. So it’d be churlish for people in group 3 to worry too much about bailing out the poor buggers in group 2 – we’ll just buy their houses for next-to-nothing…

People in group 4 are unequivocally hit both by the house price crash and by the interest rate cut. But since their net worth is enormous by comparison with everyone else, even after both these adverse events, and since they’re the ones who benefited from 40 years of house price inflation and the enormous wealth transfer from the young to the old that this entailed, their plight is pretty much inconsequential.

And the poor? Well, they’re pretty much still poor, just as they were during the boom.

World of Chutzpah

BBC City Diarist ‘Stephen’:

During the chancellor’s pre-Budget report and the opposition’s response, there were alternate gasps of disbelief and jeers of contempt across our trading floor. It’s utterly bewildering how our political system has managed to put such innumerates, however well-meaning, in charge of our economy.

Hmm. Perhaps, after you – not the politicians at all – were directly responsible for screwing the economy, you might lay off on jeering at them for trying to clean up the mess you created? And given your complete inability to price or understand liquidity risk, perhaps ‘innumeracy’ jibes might be considered especially inappropriate?

As ever, Dan Davies has the sensible economist’s take on things: viz, it’s all to the good but probably won’t be enough. And prophet of doom Willem Buiters is as terrifying, well-argued and appallingly badly written as ever.

Furniture, nudity thereof

If anyone uses the phrase ‘the cupboard is bare’ when referring to the UK’s current economic position, this is an excellent indicator that they are entirely clueless about it. For one, it’s an embarrassingly trite and twee metaphor, unlikely to be used by anyone literate; for two, it paints an entirely false picture of the government’s financial situation (also, note that the government precisely and exactly did pay down the national debt as a proportion of GDP, which is the only figure that matters, during the boom times, which makes criticising them for not doing so particularly weird).

As Chris highlights (while also, correctly, pointing out that the current ‘sterling crash’ isn’t one at all – if it were, the pound would have fallen significantly against the euro, which it hasn’t. Rather, it’s a dollar/yen rally), people are still falling over themselves to lend the government money at very low interest rates. That’s an indicator that outside of cutesy-talking-point land, serious people accept there’s plenty of, err, cupboard-room.

While I’m here, a couple of points on the Centre for Policy Studies report that purports to show the UK has a ginormously terrifying public debt. For a start, it’s written by a Tory MP – aren’t think-tanks producing this kind of report supposed to maintain some vague pretence of not being entirely motivated by partisan hackery?

Content-wise, it’s the same report the CPS churn out every year, with the figures slightly updated. And as always, it’s spun ridiculously: the angle is approximately “when you include the PFI Enron accounting, Network Rail’s nationalised in all but name-ness, bank bits, various other dodges and public sector pensions, the national debt is enormous”. In fact, the only non-trivial sums it identifies are PFI payments – which it exaggerates by a factor of more than three by failing to follow anything even vaguely resembling accounting standards, as I’ve already pointed out here – and public sector pensions, which are an order of magnitude larger than any of the other factor, and are the only way authors of this kind of paper can get from “the national debt is 42% of GDP instead of 39%, nobody cares” to “oh my god, the national debt is 150% of GDP and we’re all ruined due to Evil Labour”.

Quite how the hell public sector pensions should be accounted for is a tough question, and not one which has been satisfactorily resolved anywhere by anybody. However, suggesting that the UK is particularly screwed because of Labour’s incompetence and dodging, when actually the problem has existed forever and in every developed economy, is grossly dishonest. It also doesn’t represent debt in the sense of ‘people who have pieces of paper saying you’ll pay them and who’ll sue you if you don’t’ – it’s just a promise from politicians to be nice to old people, and we all know about the iron-like unbreakability of politicians’ promises…

[*] Yes, Network Rail’s GBP20bn debt should be included in the headline figures, as it’s government-guaranteed and not secured against tradeable assets. So should the real PFI number of c.GBP30bn; together, these add an extra 4-5% of GDP to the official national debt figure. I’m happy to confirm for the benefit of readers who question my political neutrality that these should be classed in the national debt proper and that Labour are slippery sods for not doing so (although on the other hand, they were the first ever UK government to move to GAAP for public sector accounting and are one of the first globally to adopt IFRS).

The banks shouldn’t be: it doesn’t make sense to view debt backed by tradeable financial assets as part of The National Debt, since it doesn’t represent money that’ll have to be paid back out of future taxation. At worst, we’re on the hook for the difference between the value of the banks’ mortgage books now and the long-term value of the relevant houses, cushioned by homeowners’ wiped-out equity. Even if we have a two-year depression and house prices fall 40% from their peak, the loss potential isn’t high.

I endorse this product and/or service

While I’ve spent a few days been being assortedly sunburned, rained upon, terrified and crushed on our fine inland waterway system, dsquared has sort-of-broken his ‘not commenting on the current crisis’ rule. Read it.

Yes, of course there’s some TWST, WT? to it, but the conclusion that Western banks’ loans exceed their deposits because the decision was taken at a macro level (and a long time ago) for Western economies’ imports to exceed their exports is pretty hard to deny. Even if it’s not as satisfying as saying ‘those bastards in Canary Wharf stole our money’.

Just in case…

I’m doubtful that RBS will fail, despite some informed commentators’ beliefs to the contrary.

However, in the event that it should collapse, I’d like to be the first person to suggest that the Deloitte partner who led the BCCI liquidation would be an excellent choice of administrator…

Update: fail prediction FAIL. If the government is forced to take a majority stake in your company, you’ve failed.

In other ‘don’t panic’ news…

rates are still looking pretty good on UK government bonds, so even after the financial bail-out the government has plenty of room to borrow for infrastructure investment.

The only danger is if politicians bow to the pressure from “let’s turn this recession into a depression because we hate Keynes” maniacs and don’t take advantage of the opportunity…

Anything the global financial system can do, local government can do worse

Individuals who lost more than £50,000 in the Landsbanki collapse certainly let greed get in the way of good sense, and certainly don’t deserve the generous bail-out terms that the government has given them. However, that pales into insignificance compared to the 20+ local councils who’ve lost tens of millions between them in Landsbanki deposits. And who won’t get a penny back, as compensation schemes for bankrupt banks only protect retail investors.

These organisations actually have people employed with financial qualifications in working out what to do with their money. And it’s not like they haven’t been burned before by the collapse of a dodgy bank that just happened to be the highest interest payer (if it is in fact possible to work in local government finance without being told about the BCCI collapse and its knock-on effect for councils, then there’s a systemic problem in that everyone in the entire industry is completely inept).

It’s unfortunate that local taxpayers can’t recover the missing assets from the idiots in question, and the councillors who’ve singularly failed to oversee them (and who, I’m willing to stake near-Landsbanki-style amounts of money, will be more or less equally drawn from the ranks of the major parties).

Update: The Daily Mash calls it right: “oh fuck, we meant ‘Luxembourg’”…

End of the world update: time to buy tins and shotguns?

So, when I said “don’t bother switching banks,” what I actually meant was “don’t bother switching banks unless your bank, instead of falling under the UK compensation scheme, falls under the compensation scheme of a small, rainy, historically very poor island which crazily overexpanded over the last five years and has absolutely no chance of meeting its bailout obligations if things go wrong”.

Sorry, Icesave investors. On the plus side, my point about the daftness of transferring money to Irish banks is made rather conclusively.

Oh, and while I’m clarifying – I’m in the lucky position where my savings (just about) go over the protected limit, and I’ve had them split between several accounts to diversify risk even before the current crisis started. While I think it’s likely that a crash – especially if it’s of a real bank, rather than ultra-high-interest online chancers – will bring full protection, it might not, so get transferring now if you’ve still got over £50k with one institution.

Relatedly, Seth Freedman has a piece in the Guardian, wondering why people who chose to sign up for ultra-high interest rates with a ropey over-leveraged bank should be bailed out at the expense of the poor and the prudent – and he has a good point. It’s fair for the government to fully compensate savers in banks that a reasonable person would see as ‘safe’ [*], but hard to justify going over the clearly stated FSCS limits for people who’re choosing to gain an extra 2% interest in exchange for investing in, say, the First Bank of Nigeria rather than Lloyds TSB.

Looking to the longer term, and today’s liquidity-for-shares UK bank nationalisation announcement, my dad has a piece up on Liberal Conspiracy arguing that liquidity bail-outs are a terrible idea, as the crisis would otherwise be an excellent opportunity to get rid of the parasitical bastards at the major investment banks and end the toll they’ve exacted on the global economy ever since the Depression. If my dad were Mark Steel, that’d be unsurprising; since he’s been a stockbroker for 30 years and is currently head of investment banking for a broking firm, it’s a little more interesting…

[*] there’s a difference between savers in Northern Rock or HBOS, and Icesave or First Bank of Nigeria here. Northern Rock was originally a safe, conservative institution that made itself unsafe without most of its customers noticing, while HBOS did something similar (with less ineptitude and worse luck). On the other hand, Landsbanki was a foreign investment bank that nobody in the UK had ever heard of, and that was massively over-extended when Icesave started – and FBN is actually a reasonably good institution by local standards that appears to be holding up well, but hello! it’s a fucking Nigerian bank!

Update 8/10: Darling has copped out slightly. Rightly, he’s agreed to pay the €20,000 that the Icelandic government should have covered to Icesave savers; and rightly, he’s frozen Landsbanki’s remaining UK assets in the hope of recovering some money to offset against the compensation. Wrongly, he’s also covering deposits over £50k, which should have been written off to “if you’re that stupid then you don’t deserve to have 2x the average annual wage in cash”. Still, it’s more evidence for my “put the deposits in whatever goddamn bank you choose and you’re still safe” theory…

Don’t bother switching banks

Executive summary: If your savings are deposited in a UK retail bank, they are safe, and if you’re wasting your time transferring your money into UK government-backed savings or Irish banks you’re a muppet. Although if you’re super-paranoid then Ulster Bank might be worth a punt…

Rationale:

1) If your savings below £50,000 are deposited in a UK retail bank, they are no less safe than they were deposited in government-issued savings products. That’s because the only context in which you would not get your savings reimbursed in the event of bank failure would be if the government was so financially shafted that it couldn’t afford to do so, which is pretty much “tinned food, bottled water and a shotgun” time anyway…

2) With the government guarantee, your savings are probably slightly safer in a UK retail bank than an Irish retail bank, because there’s no way in hell the Irish government could possibly afford to keep its promises, whereas the UK government is slightly better placed to do so (also, the UK economy is slightly less shafted than the Irish economy).

3) Savings in a UK account above £50,000 are also effectively safe: it’s impossible to imagine any situation where the UK government would be able to reimburse savings below the limit and would not also compensate savers above the limit (they account for 2% of bank balances, so the cost to the government of providing the extra bail-out money would be negligible – but the confidence impact of not doing it would be dramatic).

4) Ulster Bank (RBS’s subsidiary in both Northern Ireland and the Republic) might get covered under the Irish plan as well as already falling under the UK scheme. While it’s unlikely that a catastrophic failure that led to the collapse of RBS and the UK government’s inability to bail out RBS depositors would occur without the Irish banking system also collapsing, it’s not completely impossible – so shifting your deposits to Ulster Bank if the deal goes through is the only way to (at least theoretically) enhance your risk profile…