Pressure grows on Britain to exit bailed-out banks

The Archbishop of Canterbury, a former chancellor of the exchequer and the outgoing governor of the Bank of England are unusual comrades in arms.

The Archbishop of Canterbury, a former chancellor of the exchequer and the outgoing governor of the Bank of England are unusual comrades in arms.

The three stalwarts of the British establishment - Justin Welby, Nigel Lawson and Mervyn King - are all calling for the break-up of the part-nationalised Royal Bank of Scotland. They are part of a growing debate in Britain about what to do with the bank and its rival, Lloyds, which received more than $US103 billion combined in bailouts during the financial crisis.

Nearly five years after British taxpayers first took stakes in the lenders, the government is preparing to reduce its holdings before the next election, expected early in 2015. The government owns 81 per cent of RBS and 39 per cent of Lloyds.

Yet, unlike the share sales in financial giants like Citigroup that allowed the US government to make a profit, the prospective offerings in Britain may be more difficult.

The two banks are still cleaning up their balance sheets and selling unwanted assets that could put off new investors. Both continue to come under pressure to increase lending to the struggling economy. And the timing of any share sale, which could come as early as next year, may lead to losses for British taxpayers - potentially angering voters.

Elisabeth Rudman, an analyst with credit rating firm DBRS, said the two British banks were in much worse shape than their American counterparts. RBS was not only burdened by its participation in the acquisition of the Dutch lender ABN Amro, but it had large exposure to imploding real estate markets such as Ireland.

The critical element in the government's effort to shed its banks stakes is timing. Later this month, George Osborne, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, will present his strategy to return the two banks to the private sector. His plan will come soon after the findings of a parliamentary committee that will outline how the firms could be privatised.

Many of the committee members are calling for the break-up of RBS to carve out the most risky assets.

"I get confused by all the talk about waiting," said Ian Gordon, an analyst with Investec in London, adding that the British government should sell the stakes tomorrow. "Can we sell the shares now? Of course we can."

The fortunes of the two banks have improved since their bailouts.

RBS has been gradually digging itself out of its ill-judged ABN Amro acquisition in 2007. The bank has shed billions of dollars from its balance sheet and cut about 40,000 jobs over the past five years. It has also slashed its investment banking operations, which came under scrutiny this year after RBS was forced to pay a $US612 million fine connected to the Libor rate-rigging scandal.

For any prospective share sale in the two banks to be a success, the government must convince voters that the offerings would benefit the economy after taxpayers spent billions to rescue the two lenders.

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