First sale of government stake in Lloyds is a success

But can private investors cash in on the deal?

Just a few days ago the government formally announced the imminent stock market flotation of state-owned British postal stalwart Royal Mail, as discussed by Spear’s last week.

In a move reminiscent of the mass privatisation of the Thatcherite era, this week the sale of another major organisation – albeit only part-owned by the state – has begun. Earlier this morning it was announced that the initial sale of taxpayer-owned shares in Lloyds Banking Group to institutional investors has raised £3.2 billion for the Treasury, representing a small profit (but not after inflation).

However, unlike the case of Royal Mail’s whopping 378-year-long history of complete state ownership, the government has only owned just over a third (38.7 per cent) of Lloyds Banking Group for the past five years, following its £20bn bailout of the failing bank in 2008 as a result of the Lloyds’ disastrous acquisition of Halifax Bank of Scotland.

The government is selling a 6 per cent share of it stake, reducing its ownership of the bank to around 32.7 per cent. While this may appear to be a small chunk of its holding, the Coalition can hope to cash £3.3 bn for the benefit of taxpayers on breaking the deal.

In a statement the Treasury said: "We want to get the best value for the taxpayer, maximise support for the economy and restore them to private ownership. The Government will only conclude a sale if these objectives are met."

Shares in Lloyds closed at 77.36p on Monday, which is well above the price of 61p that Chancellor George Osborne regards as the break-even level. During Lloyds' bailout the government bought shares at an average price of 73.6p.

Since the average market price at the time was 61p, the government booked the difference as a loss and added it to the national debt. BBC business editor Robert Peston says that based on Monday's share price the taxpayer should "more-or-less" get its money back.

The sale of this banking giant, laid low by the credit crunch, has been hailed as the UK’s second biggest share placing ever. It is, according to the Financial Times, not only a milestone in Lloyds’ recovery but also the sign of a momentous turnaround in the UK’s fortunes in the wake of the financial crisis, which brought the banking industry to the brink of collapse in October 2008.

The FT also reports that Lloyds’ shares, which are expected to be sold at 75p, have soared more than 90 per cent in the past 12 months, racing past the government’s 73.6p "in-price" for the first time in three years last month. It came as no surprise, therefore, that the government set the wheels in motion for the reprivatisation process.

And, naturally, investors are keen to muscle in on the action. The Capital markets bankers involved in the transaction reported a swift take-up of Lloyds shares, with one US hedge fund said to have submitted a $1bn order.

"Investors are making a call on the UK," said one banker on the deal. 'This level of demand would not be there if people weren’t confident in the UK’s broader economic recovery.'

The good news is that individual investors could also soon get their hands on some Lloyds shares, since the initial placement is expected to be followed by a second sale – potentially involving retail investors – in the first half of 2014.

Royal Mail’s flotation has created some interesting private investment opportunities through publicly traded shares, so let’s hope we can bank on getting access to some Lloyds stocks, too.

This piece first appeared on Spear's Magazine.

Lloyds TSB. Photograph: Getty Images

This is a story from the team at Spears magazine.

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An Irish Sea border – and 3 other tricky options for Northern Ireland after Brexit

There is no easy option for Northern Ireland after Brexit. 

Deciding on post-Brexit border arrangements between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic is becoming an issue for which the phrase "the devil is in the detail" could have been coined. Finding a satisfactory solution that delivers a border flexible enough not to damage international trade and commerce and doesn’t undermine the spirit, or the letter, of the Good Friday Agreement settlement is foxing Whitehall’s brightest.

The dial seemed to have settled on David Davis’s suggestion that there could be a "digital border" with security cameras and pre-registered cargo as a preferred alternative to a "hard border" replete with checkpoints and watchtowers.

However the Brexit secretary’s suggestion has been scotched by the new Irish foreign minister, Simon Coveney, who says electronic solutions are "not going to work". Today’s Times quotes him saying that "any barrier or border on the island of Ireland in my view risks undermining a very hard-won peace process" and that there is a need to ensure the "free movement of people and goods and services and livelihoods".

The EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, has made dealing with the Irish border question one of his top three priorities before discussions on trade deals can begin. British ministers are going to have to make-up their minds which one of four unpalatable options they are going to choose:

1. Hard border

The first is to ignore Dublin (and just about everybody in Northern Ireland for that matter) and institute a hard border along the 310-mile demarcation between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic. Given it takes in fields, rivers and forests it’s pretty unenforceable without a Trump-style wall. More practically, it would devastate trade and free movement. Metaphorically, it would be a powerful symbol of division and entirely contrary to the spirit of the Good Friday Agreement. The Police Federation in Northern Ireland has also warned it would make police officers "sitting ducks for terrorists". Moreover, the Irish government will never agree to this course. With the EU in their corner, there is effectively zero chance of this happening.

2. Northern EU-land

The second option is to actually keep Northern Ireland inside the EU: offering it so-called "special status". This would avoid the difficulty of enforcing the border and even accord with the wishes of 56 per cent of the Northern Irish electorate who voted to Remain in the EU. Crucially, it would see Northern Ireland able to retain the £600m a year it currently receives from the EU. This is pushed by Sinn Fein and does have a powerful logic, but it would be a massive embarrassment for the British Government and lead to Scotland (and possibly London?) demanding similar treatment.

3. Natural assets

The third option is that suggested by the Irish government in the Times story today, namely a soft border with customs and passport controls at embarkation points on the island of Ireland, using the Irish Sea as a hard border (or certainly a wet one). This option is in play, if for no other reason than the Irish government is suggesting it. Again, unionists will be unhappy as it requires Britain to treat the island of Ireland as a single entity with border and possibly customs checks at ports and airports. There is a neat administrate logic to it, but it means people travelling from Northern Ireland to "mainland" Britain would need to show their passports, which will enrage unionists as it effectively makes them foreigners.

4. Irish reunification

Unpalatable as that would be for unionists, the fourth option is simply to recognise that Northern Ireland is now utterly anomalous and start a proper conversation about Irish reunification as a means to address the border issue once and for all. This would see both governments acting as persuaders to try and build consent and accelerate trends to reunify the island constitutionally. This would involve twin referendums in both Northern Ireland and the Republic (a measure allowed for in the Good Friday Agreement). Given Philip Hammond is warning that transitional arrangements could last three years, this might occur after Brexit in 2019, perhaps as late as the early 2020s, with interim arrangements in the meantime. Demographic trends pointing to a Catholic-nationalist majority in Northern Ireland would, in all likelihood require a referendum by then anyway. The opportunity here is to make necessity the mother of invention, using Brexit to bring Northern Ireland’s constitutional status to a head and deal decisively with the matter once and for all.

In short, ministers have no easy options, however time is now a factor and they will soon have to draw the line on, well, drawing the line.

Kevin Meagher is a former special adviser at the Northern Ireland Office and author of "A United Ireland: Why unification is inevitable and how it will come about"

Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut and a former special adviser at the Northern Ireland office.