Lord Stephenson - dishonest or delusional?

Ex-chairman of HBOS called to account.

The Bank of England has said that the economic impact of the financial crisis was on a par with the Second World War. And the wannabe Inglorious Basterds on the Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards continue to call to account the war criminals.

It all feels a bit like old news now… We know full well that HBOS was badly run. We know about the secret bailouts, the “spirit of optimism” that led to disaster.

This week it was the turn of Lord Stephenson. The ex-chairman of HBOS was - and still is - suave and silver-tongued. He is the kind of man who you believe when he says something like

..there was just no way we [the HBOS leadership] were encouraging a culture of excessive risk-taking.

But one committee member – Lord Lawson – wasn’t having any of it. “You are living in cloud cuckoo land,” he said.

And to remind ourselves just how risk-averse HBOS was in the lead-up to the melt-down, we should recall the story of Benny Higgins. A bona fide banking superstar, Benny Higgins joined HBOS in 2006 from RBS, where he had overseen the successful integration of NatWest into the group.

After less than two years, he left HBOS under a cloud, having presided over the dramatic reduction of the bank’s  mortgage book. With hindsight it sounds prudent and praiseworthy action. At the time, however, he was universally pilloried for presiding over such a huge loss in market share.

And in the wake of this “disaster”, silver-tongued Stephenson was there to reassure twitchy stakeholders that the bank would bounce back and regain its position in residential mortgages. Not only that, but he wrote to the FSA (a letter since published by the Commission), emphasising that HBOS was a “highly conservative institution”.

I am not aware of any lurking horrors in our business or our balance sheet. Quite the reverse ... HBOS in an admittedly uncertain and insecure world is in as secure a position as it could be.

Happy to be crossed questioned on this but I hope you know me well enough to know this is neither a bravura nor an ill considered statement.

There you are – a man in control… Confident and reassuring. A year later the bank had been merged with Lloyds and was being bailed out by the taxpayer to the tune of £17 bn.

We could rely on Lord Lawson to remind Stephenson just how much bravura there was in that statement. “Either you were being dishonest when you wrote that or, if you believed it, you were delusional,” he said.

“Spirit of optimism” at HBOS: Photograph: Getty Images

James Ratcliff is Group Editor of  Cards and Payments at VRL Financial News.

Photo: Getty Images
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Autumn Statement 2015: George Osborne abandons his target

How will George Osborne close the deficit after his U-Turns? Answer: he won't, of course. 

“Good governments U-Turn, and U-Turn frequently.” That’s Andrew Adonis’ maxim, and George Osborne borrowed heavily from him today, delivering two big U-Turns, on tax credits and on police funding. There will be no cuts to tax credits or to the police.

The Office for Budget Responsibility estimates that, in total, the government gave away £6.2 billion next year, more than half of which is the reverse to tax credits.

Osborne claims that he will still deliver his planned £12bn reduction in welfare. But, as I’ve written before, without cutting tax credits, it’s difficult to see how you can get £12bn out of the welfare bill. Here’s the OBR’s chart of welfare spending:

The government has already promised to protect child benefit and pension spending – in fact, it actually increased pensioner spending today. So all that’s left is tax credits. If the government is not going to cut them, where’s the £12bn come from?

A bit of clever accounting today got Osborne out of his hole. The Universal Credit, once it comes in in full, will replace tax credits anyway, allowing him to describe his U-Turn as a delay, not a full retreat. But the reality – as the Treasury has admitted privately for some time – is that the Universal Credit will never be wholly implemented. The pilot schemes – one of which, in Hammersmith, I have visited myself – are little more than Potemkin set-ups. Iain Duncan Smith’s Universal Credit will never be rolled out in full. The savings from switching from tax credits to Universal Credit will never materialise.

The £12bn is smaller, too, than it was this time last week. Instead of cutting £12bn from the welfare budget by 2017-8, the government will instead cut £12bn by the end of the parliament – a much smaller task.

That’s not to say that the cuts to departmental spending and welfare will be painless – far from it. Employment Support Allowance – what used to be called incapacity benefit and severe disablement benefit – will be cut down to the level of Jobseekers’ Allowance, while the government will erect further hurdles to claimants. Cuts to departmental spending will mean a further reduction in the numbers of public sector workers.  But it will be some way short of the reductions in welfare spending required to hit Osborne’s deficit reduction timetable.

So, where’s the money coming from? The answer is nowhere. What we'll instead get is five more years of the same: increasing household debt, austerity largely concentrated on the poorest, and yet more borrowing. As the last five years proved, the Conservatives don’t need to close the deficit to be re-elected. In fact, it may be that having the need to “finish the job” as a stick to beat Labour with actually helped the Tories in May. They have neither an economic imperative nor a political one to close the deficit. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.