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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Fake news sells because people want it to be true

The rise of bullshit, from George Orwell to Donald Trump.

When is a lie not a lie? Recently, the Daily Telegraph reported that university students had demanded that “philosophers such as Plato and Kant” be “removed from [the] syllabus because they are white”. Other outlets followed suit, wringing their hands over the censoriousness of today’s uninquiring young minds. The article generated an extraordinary amount of consternation click bait. Angry responses were written and hot takes were quick-fried and served up by outlets anxious  to join the dinner rush of  ad-friendly disapproval.

It’s a story that could have been designed to press every outrage button of the political-correctness-gone-mad brigade. It has students trying to ban things, an apparent lack of respect for independent thought and reverse racism. It seemed too good to be true.

And it was. In reality, what happened was far less interesting: the student union of the School of Oriental and African Studies (Soas) at the University of London had proposed that “the majority of philosophers on our courses” be from Asia and Africa, and that the Western greats be approached from a “critical standpoint”. Some might consider this a reasonable request, given that critical analysis is a component of most philosophy courses, and Soas has a long tradition of promoting the study of the global South. Yet a story about students declaring Kant irrelevant allows the Telegraph to despair for the youth of today and permits advertisers to profit from that despair.

People didn’t start pumping out this stuff because they decided to abandon journalistic ethics. They did so because such principles are hugely expensive and a hard sell. Even those of us who create and consume news can forget that the news is a commodity – a commodity with a business model behind it, subsidised by advertising. Rigorous, investigative, nuanced content, the sort that pays attention to objective facts and fosters serious public debate, is expensive to create. Talk, however, is cheap.

Fake news sells because fake news is what people want to be true. Fake news generates clicks because people click on things that they want to believe. Clicks lead to ad revenue, and ad revenue is currently all that is sustaining a media industry in crisis. Journalism is casting about for new funding models as if for handholds on a sheer cliff. This explains a great deal about the position in which we find ourselves as citizens in this toxic public sphere.

What has this got to do with Donald Trump? A great deal. This sticky, addictive spread of fake news has fostered a climate of furious, fact-free reaction.

Press outlets give millions of dollars of free coverage to Trump without him having to send out a single press release. The reality TV star is the small-fingered god of good copy. The stories write themselves. Now, the stories are about the threat to the future of journalism from the man who has just entered the Oval Office.

Trump’s first press conference in six months, held at Trump Tower in New York on 11 January, was – by any measure – extraordinary. He did not merely refuse to answer questions about unverified allegations that he had been “cultivated” by Russia. He lost his temper spectacularly with the assembled press, declaring: “You’re fake news! And you’re fake news!”

Trump did not mean that the journalists were lying. His attitude to the press is straight from the Kremlin’s playbook: rather than refute individual accusations, he attempts to discredit the notion of truth in journalism. The free press is a check on power, and Trump likes his power unchecked.

Writing in the Guardian in 2015, Peter Pomarantsev noted of Putin’s propaganda strategy that “these efforts constitute a kind of linguistic sabotage of the infrastructure of reason: if the very possibility of rational argument is submerged in a fog of uncertainty, there are no grounds for debate – and the public can be expected to decide that there is no point in trying to decide the winner, or even bothering to listen.”

If people lose trust in the media’s capacity to report facts, they begin to rely on what “feels” true, and the influence rests with whomever can capitalise on those feelings. Donald Trump and his team know this. Trump doesn’t tell it like it is. Instead, he tells it like it feels, and that’s far more effective.

Fake news – or “bullshit”, as the American philosopher Harry G Frankfurt termed it in a 2005 essay – has never been weaponised to this extent, but it is nothing new. George Orwell anticipated the trend in the 1930s, looking back on the Spanish Civil War. “The very concept of objective truth is fading out of the world,” he wrote. “Lies will pass into history . . . In Spain, for the first time, I saw newspaper reports which did not bear any relation to the facts, not even the relationship which is implied in an ordinary lie . . . In the past people deliberately lied, or they unconsciously coloured what they wrote, or they struggled after the truth, well knowing that they must make many mistakes; but in each case they believed that ‘facts’ existed and were more or less discoverable.”

This is the real danger of fake news, and it is compounded by a lingering assumption of good faith on the part of those who believe in journalistic principle. After all, it’s impossible to prove that a person intended to deceive, and that they didn’t believe at the time that what they said was true. Trump may believe in whatever “facts” he has decided are convenient that day. When he insists that he never mocked a disabled reporter, whatever video evidence may exist to the contrary, he may believe it. Is it, then, a lie?

Of course it’s a lie. People who have no respect for the concept of truth are still capable of lies. However, they are also capable of bullshit – bullshit being a register that rubbishes the entire notion of objective reality by deeming it irrelevant. The only possible response is to insist, and keep insisting, that the truth still means something.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era