Why the public must get their share of RBS and Lloyds

My Lib Dem colleagues and I will not stand by and watch private investors reap all of the benefits once the banks are taken off intensive care.

Despite its importance to our economy, the world of finance has never elicited such a visceral repulsion from the public. This feeling can be summed up in three words: banks, bankers, bonuses.

The effects of the financial crisis of 2008-9 are still felt throughout British society and around the world. While the stewardship of the coalition government means interest rates remain low, the cost of bailing out the banks (an eye-watering £66bn) means that few Britons are immune from the deficit reduction plan necessary to return the nation’s books to good health. With this in mind, my Liberal Democrat colleagues and I strongly favour giving the public something back for the pain visited on them by the financial sector’s actions (we hope they will punish Labour politicians in 2015 for their own role in not saving for a rainy day). In a 2011 Centre Forum paper, in conjunction with Portman Capital, I proposed a public distribution of the government-owned RBS and Lloyds shares with a floor price built into the sale, meaning the government would re-coup its original investment in the two banks with the public gaining in the increase in the share price. This idea will sound familiar as several groups have since proposed similar ideas, most recently Policy Exchange. 

How does the floor price work?

For illustrative purposes only, let us assume that the price of the share is 1000p on the day of distribution with the floor set at 850p. When an investor sells, the Treasury receives the first 850p and also Capital Gains Tax on the difference between the floor and the sale price. The investor receives the balance. In our example, if the investor were to sell immediately at 1000p she would receive 123p, with the Treasury receiving 877p. However, if the investor waited and sold at 1500p his return would rise to 533p per share, with the Treasury receiving 967p. When you sell your shares, the "floor price" is deducted from the sale price, with the public receiving the difference. The floor price will be based on the prevailing market price, but will be at least the 51p per share we paid for RBS and the 74p per share we paid for Lloyds.

Why a conventional privatisation should be rejected

A "share overhang" is when the market expects a large sale from one seller, the situation we would find ourselves in if a normal privatisation is pursued.  Worse, as the government owns such a large proportion of the banks, the market is unable to absorb all of the shares at once, requiring the staging of sales over a number of years. Thus, the shares would have to be sold below market price, with the initial sales being the most heavily discounted, destroying value for British taxpayers. This happened when the US government sold its shares in GM Motors, with the first tranche of shares selling for $11 less than the break-even price to recoup its original investment.

A YouGov poll shortly after my policy was announced found that the majority of the public, across all political parties, supported my idea. The list of supporters has grown since then to include MPs from all sides and think-tanks from across the political spectrum (most recently  the Tory-facing Policy Exchange). The Chancellor should now join the list and announce that the coalition’s intention is to begin a public distribution once a sale of the shares is feasible. The Lloyds share price is sufficient enough to be considered for a sale in the near future, though RBS, despite Stephen Hester’s suggestion that it could be privatised by as early as next year, needs more time to regain strength before we will be confident of recouping our bailout cost from its share price.

The issue of what to do with the government-owned shares in RBS and Lloyds will dominate the next couple of years of the coalition, leading up to the 2015 election. I hope that this debate will focus on the nuances of a public share distribution (who should be eligible? how will voting rights be awarded?), rather than criticism of a typical privatisation whereby rich individuals profit from institutions saved by the taxpayer. My Lib Dem colleagues and I will not stand by and watch private investors reap all of the benefits once the banks are taken off  intensive care; the public must get their share.

Stephen Williams is MP for Bristol West and co-chair of the Liberal Democrat Treasury Parliamentary Policy Committee

An employee of the Royal Bank of Scotland walks inside the company headquarters at Gogarburn in Edinburgh. Photograph: Getty Images.

Stephen Williams is the MP for Bristol West and co-chair of the Liberal Democrat Treasury Parliamentary Policy Committee

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle