Category Archives: Northern Rock

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…

100% hindsight, 100% of the time

Justin is looking for constructive suggestions on what Labour could possibly do to get over their steamrollering. Mine include:

1) keep the 21% basic tax rate; abolish tax credits; and use the money saved by abolishing the 10p band to raise the personal allowance;

2) abolish NI and raise the basic and higher tax rates to compensate [this helps part-time workers, who don’t earn enough to pay income tax but are currently forced to pay NI anyway];

3) assume an acceptable public sector deficit level of 5% this year and 8% for 2009. Keep spending flat as a % of GDP and use any “surplus” cash to further raise the income tax threshold

4) Bring in a few daft-but-populist-and-fairly-cheap things: halt post office closures (even though nobody uses them, they clearly have talisman value to Middle England); bring back matrons (this probably involves renaming ’senior charge nurses’ to ‘matrons’ or similar); raise the state pension by a few bob; accept that the justice system is too beholden to the tabloids to get prison numbers down so build more (small, local) prisons; etc.

5) change the electoral system to make sure the Tories don’t get as much power as Labour had if they win: introduce some kind of PR (probably a Scottish Parliament kind of thing), create more elected mayors, devolve more central responsibilities to local authorities, give the GLA the same responsibilities as the Welsh Assembly (double-bonus: short-term, you look statesmanlike for handing power over to Boris; long-term, you get even more PR benefits when he messes up…)

However, I don’t think they’ll be anywhere near enough. There’s a small possibility that David Cameron is the Tories’ Neil Kinnock, and Labour will just scrape in at the next general election amid concerns over his competence despite popular loathing for the incumbent party, but it’s more likely based on last night’s results that the Tories will win next time.

…which brings me to my main point: Gordon Brown’s worst political move, both in terms of the Labour Party and his own legacy, was calling off the snap election last autumn. Even at the time, it was clear that he had a chance of winning – but it’s become clear since that losing would have also been a better option that what really happened.

Imagine if a minority Tory government, with limited and unofficial Lib Dem backing, had just taken power to be battered by the credit crunch, Northern Rock, rising fuel bills and House Price Carnage. Labour could have confidently and straight-facedly played the “if only the people who knew what they were doing, and who gave you 10 years of prosperity and good times were in charge” card. It would have worked, even if the Tories had only floundered as much on NR as Labour actually did (i.e. for a couple of months before doing the right thing).

With an inexperienced, toff-ish team trying to battle against a worsening global economy, with Labour attacking them on everything they did, with some of the press still vaguely on the Labour side (remember, nine months ago every commentator in the press didn’t hate Gordon Brown), with flaky Liberal support and with the Old Tory / New Tory divide re-emerging, the chances of lasting out for a five year term would be pretty damn limited. The prospects for an old hand coming back to take charge of Labour at the emergency post-collapse general election (Jack Straw PM, anyone?) would be looking pretty bright…

Instead, we’ve got two years of collapsing farce followed by five – probably ten – years of Tory misrule to look forward to. Luckily, I’m just about eligible as a skilled migrant under New Zealand’s point-based immigration scheme

Northern Rock again: why Granite isn’t that hard

If the Northern Rock debacle has done nothing else, it’s certainly given a lot of people a great opportunity to rant about things they don’t understand. The latest example is Granite, the name used for a collection of Special Purpose Vehicles [*] and associated companies [**] used by Northern Rock.

According to hard-left MP John McDonnell, Granite “holds approximately 40% of Northern Rock’s assets, around £40bn… where Northern Rock’s best assets sit outside the reach of taxpayers. So the bill to nationalise Northern Rock will, in fact, be nationalising only dodgy debt“.

The good folk of Commentisfree have gone even further to town, uniting socialist idiots and right-wing idiots alike in a chorus of “someone somewhere has carried out a rather large fraud and I would like that someone prosecuted“-type comments.

There’s only one tiny problem with this kind of commentary: it’s bollocks. The mortgages in Granite are exactly the same quality as the mortgages that stayed in NR, nothing untoward took place anywhere along the line (well, not involving SPVs), and NR isn’t liable for Granite’s debts.

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Am I missing something here?

A surprisingly large number of commentators seem to believe that Northern Rock’s shareholders should be eligible for some kind of compensation, following the bank’s nationalisation. To me, this seems utterly bizarre.

According to the Merril/Citi/Blackstone plan to sell Northern Rock in October 2007 (which was leaked by Bad People, and which certainly can’t be found anywhere on the Internet these days), the bank had mortgage assets in October 2007 of just over £100bn, and liabilities to retail depositors, commercial lenders and the UK government of just under £100bn, giving the company shareholders’ equity of somewhere well south of £5bn (based on its balance sheet, not on share prices).

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