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Britain’s government cuts its losses on Royal Bank of Scotland

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IF YOU are selling shares, they are worth not what you paid for them, but what someone else will offer. For the Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS), the sum that counts is £2.71 ($3.62). On June 5th UK Government Investments, which manages the state’s stakes in companies, said it had placed 7.7% of RBS at that price—10p below the previous day’s market close—with institutional buyers, reducing its holding to 62.4%. The government paid £5.02 per share to rescue the bank in 2008. So on those 925m shares, taxpayers have lost £2.1bn.

The state has long looked unlikely to recoup its fivers, let alone the £6.25 per share that the National Audit Office, a public-finance watchdog, reckoned last year was a fair benchmark after adding the cost of financing the bail-out. (In 2015 it sold 630m shares, or 5.4% of RBS, for £3.30 a pop.) Even if the stockmarket valued RBS as highly as the book value of its assets—which is true of few big European banks—the price would still be only £4, a level it last saw more than three years ago. Short of cash and eager to return RBS to private hands, the government may as well take what it can. It sold its last shares in Lloyds Banking Group, also bailed out in the crisis, in 2017. On that rescue it made a small profit.

In the nine years after the crisis, RBS’s losses amounted to a staggering £58.4bn, as write-downs, fines and restructuring costs piled up. After the hubristic purchase in 2007 of ABN AMRO, a Dutch lender, which led to its undoing, RBS was briefly the world’s biggest bank, with assets of over £2trn. Now it is about a third of that size and ranks only tenth even in Europe. Its investment bank, which brought in more than a third of operating profit before the crisis, accounted for under a tenth of a far smaller sum in the first quarter of 2018.

Yet RBS is still one of Britain’s biggest banks—and underneath it all, these days is in fair shape. In the first quarter its return on equity was 9.3%, a bit short of the 10% that analysts still regard as par but decent by European standards. Its ratio of equity to risk-weighted assets, a key measure of capital strength, is a robust 16.4%. Last year it made its first net profit since its fall.

The sale is another step in the bank’s slow emergence from the shadow of the crisis. Only last month did RBS say that it had agreed in principle with America’s Department of Justice to settle, for $4.9bn in cash, charges that it had mis-sold residential mortgage-backed securities between 2005 and 2007. It might have been worse: $3.5bn was covered by provisions RBS had already made. The settlement cleared the way for this week’s share sale.

Another legacy of the past is still to be cleared up. Last year, as part of the price of the bail-out, the government and the European Commission agreed on a scheme under which RBS will give up about 3% of the British market for small businesses, which it leads. The bank is putting up £425m to build up smaller banks’ capabilities, plus £350m for incentives to customers to switch banks. The bosses of the body that will divide the cash were appointed only in May. Financial crises cast long shadows. RBS isn’t in the sunshine yet.



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