Lindsay McIntosh, The Scotsman
October 9, 2008
IT WAS a day of desperate global action, unprecedented in both scale and cost, intended to stymie the international devastation being wrought by the financial crisis.
As the London stock market steeled itself to open again following days of vicious battering, Alistair Darling, the Chancellor, rose to stake the future of the country and the Cabinet on an audacious Ãƒâ€šÃ‚Â£500 billion banking bail-out.
And barely had the City begun to digest the hugely complex and unorthodox scheme when it was sent reeling again by an unscheduled interest rate cut — mirrored across the world — by the Monetary Policy Committee. It was the first such co-ordinated approach since the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001 — yet another indicator, had one been needed, of the gravity of the situation.
The half percentage point drop was immediately passed on to millions of borrowers, with leading high-street banks cutting their mortgages.
The government’s scheme, a three-part plan which takes in short, medium and long-term measures, was welcomed by business leaders and analysts.
David Kern, adviser to the British Chamber of Commerce, said: “The government has taken a radical step, but it is one we welcome.”
But there was concern a phenomenal amount of taxpayers’ cash was being staked on a last-ditch measure that could fail. The Taxpayers’ Alliance accused ministers of failing to address other options first.
Meanwhile, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) issued a fresh warning that Britain was on the brink of recession.
In its latest World Economic Outlook, it predicted the UK economy would contract by 0.1 per cent next year as growth across the developed countries slowed to almost zero.
The downturn will mean lost jobs, with unemployment forecast to rise from 5.4 per cent to 6 per cent, while public finances were said to be “considerably weaker” than in previous slowdowns. However, the IMF said it was expecting Britain to bounce back strongly in 2010.
The Ãƒâ€šÃ‚Â£500 billion plan includes the government taking shares of up to Ãƒâ€šÃ‚Â£50 billion in leading banks, increasing funds available to banks to Ãƒâ€šÃ‚Â£200 billion, and guaranteeing their debts when they lend to one another. The guarantees are likely to cost up to Ãƒâ€šÃ‚Â£250 billion.
The Prime Minister called the plans “bold and far-reaching”, but admitted they would offer no quick fix.
Eight UK banks and building societies — including Royal Bank of Scotland, Halifax Bank of Scotland, Barclays, Lloyds TSB and Nationwide — have pledged to increase their capital by Ãƒâ€šÃ‚Â£25 billion but the government will pump in the funds if called upon. The Treasury also stands ready to make at least another Ãƒâ€šÃ‚Â£25 billion available, if necessary.
The Bank of England — alongside its interest rate cut — is taking emergency action to help ensure banks have enough cash to run their day-to-day activities. It has increased to Ãƒâ€šÃ‚Â£200 billion the size of its special liquidity scheme that lets banks swap risky assets for Treasury bonds.
The government is also making the further Ãƒâ€šÃ‚Â£250 billion available for banks to guarantee debt, but a fee will be charged.
Mr Brown moved to reassure taxpayers they would have the potential to “earn a proper return” from their investment. There would be “strings attached and conditions to be met” to protect taxpayer interests.
One key concern is whether there will be controls over the bonuses of the “fat cat” bank bosses. Gordon Brown, the Prime Minister, said such issues would be dealt with case by case. Remuneration should be “based on responsibility, hard work, effort and enterprise”, he said.
It had been claimed that RBS bosses, chief executive Sir Fred Goodwin and chairman Sir Tom McKillop, had offered to leave under a boardroom clear-out agreed with the government, but this was denied by the bank.
The announcement provided an initial boost to the FTSE 100 index of leading shares, and in particular to banking stocks, but this fell away later in the day. The FTSE closed at a loss of 5 per cent — its lowest close since 2004 — while banks failed to hold on to the huge gains of up to 60 per cent made earlier in the day.
When Mr Brown stood to address the House of Commons on the package, which could well determine how his premiership is judged, he was able to announce the interest rate cut.
Central banks across Europe, the US, Canada and China also reduced interest rates in an emergency move.
The banks hope to encourage nervous consumers and businesses to spend more freely again after widespread housing, credit and financial problems.
The cut — which was immediately passed on to more than five million homeowners — was cautiously welcomed by analysts and business leaders.
Miles Templeman, director-general of the Institute of Directors, said: “Before today’s announcement, the financial system was in the deep freeze. After today, it might be in the fridge, but there is no guarantee. Nobody should be under any illusion that the financial system is now fixed. Our concern now is for the real economy and how much it will slow.
“There remains a real risk that the economic downturn under way will further undermine bank capital due to rising repossessions and bad debt.”
Howard Archer, an economist, of Global Insight, said: “It’s not the magic pill. We have a lot of difficult times ahead. But the first stage is stopping things getting worse, and the hope is this will help to stabilise the economy.”
Martin Weale, director of the National Institute of Economic and Social Research, said that, for the UK, it was important that the move came alongside the Ãƒâ€šÃ‚Â£500 billion package.
He said: “The international banks concluded there is a major international banking crisis. Banks were collapsing in Europe, as well as the United States. I think they rather optimistically concluded a rate cut of this type can restore confidence.”
Rate cuts were “a valuable piece on the side”, but he added: “The key issue is for affected countries to do what Britain has done and show governments are prepared to inject equity capital into banks that look as though they need it.
“We will only be confident the worst is over when the US adopts a scheme like Britain.”
And Louise Cuming, the head of mortgages at moneysupermarket.com, warned: “This is not a magic cure-all, and we won’t see either the mortgage or the housing market bouncing back to where it was 18 months ago.”
Following the announcements, Mr Brown spoke by phone to the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, and the Italian prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, as well as the EC president, JosÃƒÆ’Ã‚Â© Manuel Barroso.
The government is expected to hold up its plan as a potential model for the rest of Europe. The EU — which is concerned about competition implications of a scheme by Ireland to safeguard its deposits — later said it saw no problem with Britain’s move.
Mr Darling is due to fly to Washington today to discuss global action on the crisis.
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