Saturday, October 11, 2008

Britain's Big Banks Bailout

Britains Big Banks Bailout

The British government has announced the most comprehensive rescue package yet for any banking system in the world. The government will inject up to $88 billion of new capital into major British banks such as Barclays (BCS), Lloyds TSB (LYG), and HBOS (HBOS.L). And in an effort to ease fears that have reached near panic levels, the government will guarantee short and medium term bank funding. It estimates that the takeup of this offer could run to $440 billion.

The whole package amounts to some $880 billion or more in new and old money—an even greater sum than the recent $700 billion U.S. rescue package. "This is beginning a process of un-bunging a big problem where banks won't lend to each other for long periods," said Chancellor Alistair Darling. Investors were relieved but not entirely swayed: The benchmark FTSE 100 stock index stayed flat most of the day and then turned sharply downward in mid-afternoon.

The government's announcement was coupled with a one half percentage point rate cut by the Bank of England, to 4.5%. The rate reduction was coordinated with other central banks, including the European Central Bank and the U.S. Federal Reserve, which also dropped key interest rates by 50 basis points (, 10/8/08). The BOE, led by its brilliant but sometimes overly abstract Governor, Mervyn King, has been slow to recognize the fast-mounting dangers to economic growth—focusing instead on inflation and the need to teach a lesson to those who made and accepted foolish loans.

The rescue package will come at a price: The government will have a say in executive compensation and dividend policies at the banks participating in the bailout, and will require a "full commitment to support lending to small businesses and home buyers." Shareholders also are likely to see their equity stakes diluted.

The giant bailout is the clearest sign yet of how much the financial environment has changed in Britain and London in recent weeks. Britain benefited hugely from the credit bull market, with house prices soaring and City financiers and traders reaping lavish compensation. Now, with everything going into reverse, the government is proposing what amounts to a partial nationalization of the banks. Similar moves have occurred in the past tumultuous week in other European countries including Iceland, Belgium, and the Netherlands (, 10/6/08).

It's not clear yet which banks will take advantage of the bailout. Eight of the major banks have agreed to raise a collective total of $44 billion in capital by yearend. But how this number will be shared, and which banks will take taxpayer money has not been revealed. Some may raise the money from private sources.

Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS), whose stock plummeted almost 40% on Oct. 7, has said it will participate in some form. While welcoming the government package, HSBC (HBC), the largest British bank, says it won't take government funds. HSBC sources say the bank doesn't need new capital—and it's already grabbing market share from other institutions as savers and business clients seek the safety of its large balance sheet.

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