Why is the RBS fine so small?

What is £400m for a bank bailed out to the tune of £45bn?

So, now we know. The guessing game is over and Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS) has been hit with a fine of £400m for its role in the LIBOR-rate rigging scandal.

It may sound a lot but don’t be kidded, don’t be conned. RBS is, after all, a firm with annual revenue of around £30bn. To put the size of the fine in context, it has already set aside £1.7bn (and rising) to cover the cost of claims for mis-sold payment protection insurance (PPI).

What is another £400m between friends for a bank bailed out to the tune of £45bn?

Taxpayers currently have the dubious distinction of holding around 81 per cent of shares in RBS with the government having paid the equivalent of just over £5 per share.

With a current share price of £3.40, the government is sitting on paper losses of just under £15bn.

As Vince Cable has gloomily but accurately forecast, early hope for RBS being re-privatised is no more than a “distant dream.”

There is however one thing that the UK government could do and do quickly. It could stop pussyfooting about over RBS’ US-based subsidiary, Citizens Bank.

Citizens, headquartered in Rhode Island, operates in 12 US states; it is a top 20 US bank with assets of $132bn, around 1,400 branches and a staff of 19,000 employees.

To date, RBS has resisted calls to sell Citizens, despite interest shown in its US unit from a number of banks.

Canada-based Toronto-Dominion and Brazil’s Itau-Unibanco have, from time to time, been linked with an interest in snapping up Citizens. US-based PNC is another potential bidder.

Analysts forecast that if Citizens was on the block, it might fetch around £7.5bn. The party line from RBS has, to date, taken the line that Citizens is a core asset and not for sale. Poppycock.

RBS will, eventually, have to bow to the inevitable and cash in its Citizens chips. It is now time for the government, via UK Financial Investments Limited, the organisation set up immediately after the October 2008 bailouts of Lloyds and RBS, to bear its teeth.

It could start by leaning heavily on RBS to focus on getting its domestic market in order and sell off Citizens.

Photograph: Getty Images

Douglas Blakey is the editor of Retail Banker International

Getty
Show Hide image

I was wrong about Help to Buy - but I'm still glad it's gone

As a mortgage journalist in 2013, I was deeply sceptical of the guarantee scheme. 

If you just read the headlines about Help to Buy, you could be under the impression that Theresa May has just axed an important scheme for first-time buyers. If you're on the left, you might conclude that she is on a mission to make life worse for ordinary working people. If you just enjoy blue-on-blue action, it's a swipe at the Chancellor she sacked, George Osborne.

Except it's none of those things. Help to Buy mortgage guarantee scheme is a policy that actually worked pretty well - despite the concerns of financial journalists including me - and has served its purpose.

When Osborne first announced Help to Buy in 2013, it was controversial. Mortgage journalists, such as I was at the time, were still mopping up news from the financial crisis. We were still writing up reports about the toxic loan books that had brought the banks crashing down. The idea of the Government promising to bail out mortgage borrowers seemed the height of recklessness.

But the Government always intended Help to Buy mortgage guarantee to act as a stimulus, not a long-term solution. From the beginning, it had an end date - 31 December 2016. The idea was to encourage big banks to start lending again.

So far, the record of Help to Buy has been pretty good. A first-time buyer in 2013 with a 5 per cent deposit had 56 mortgage products to choose from - not much when you consider some of those products would have been ridiculously expensive or would come with many strings attached. By 2016, according to Moneyfacts, first-time buyers had 271 products to choose from, nearly a five-fold increase

Over the same period, financial regulators have introduced much tougher mortgage affordability rules. First-time buyers can be expected to be interrogated about their income, their little luxuries and how they would cope if interest rates rose (contrary to our expectations in 2013, the Bank of England base rate has actually fallen). 

A criticism that still rings true, however, is that the mortgage guarantee scheme only helps boost demand for properties, while doing nothing about the lack of housing supply. Unlike its sister scheme, the Help to Buy equity loan scheme, there is no incentive for property companies to build more homes. According to FullFact, there were just 112,000 homes being built in England and Wales in 2010. By 2015, that had increased, but only to a mere 149,000.

This lack of supply helps to prop up house prices - one of the factors making it so difficult to get on the housing ladder in the first place. In July, the average house price in England was £233,000. This means a first-time buyer with a 5 per cent deposit of £11,650 would still need to be earning nearly £50,000 to meet most mortgage affordability criteria. In other words, the Help to Buy mortgage guarantee is targeted squarely at the middle class.

The Government plans to maintain the Help to Buy equity loan scheme, which is restricted to new builds, and the Help to Buy ISA, which rewards savers at a time of low interest rates. As for Help to Buy mortgage guarantee, the scheme may be dead, but so long as high street banks are offering 95 per cent mortgages, its effects are still with us.