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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When Theresa May speaks, why don’t we listen?

Not many Prime Ministers have to repeat themselves three times. 

Theresa May is the candidate of Brexit and market panic. She ascended to the highest office because, in the fraught weeks after Britain’s vote to leave the European Union, she represented a safe haven for nervous Conservative MPs, the dependable family mutual that remained open while all along the Conservative high street, her rivals were shutting up shop.

Her popularity, as revealed in high poll ratings outside Westminster, too, owes itself to the perception that she is a serious politician in serious times, happily installed atop the ship of state to guide it through the rocky waters of Brexit negotiations.

May’s premiership has been defined by market panics of a different kind, however. The first is in the currency markets, where sterling takes a tumble whenever she pronounces on Britain’s future relationship with the European Union, falling both after her conference speech on 2 October and after her start-of-the-year interview with Sophy Ridge on 8 January. The second is in the opinion pages, where May’s stock oscillates wildly from bullish to bearish.

In the first months of May’s government, she was hailed as an Anglo-Saxon counterpart to Angela Merkel: a solid centre-right Christian democrat who would usher in a decade of conservative hegemony. More recently, she has been compared to Gordon Brown because of her perceived indecisiveness and repeatedly accused of failing to spell out what, exactly, her government’s Brexit objectives are.

In a symbol of the splits on the right between the Brexiteers and Remainers, the Economist, that bible of free-market globalisation and usually a reliable tastemaker as far as Westminster groupthink is concerned, began 2017 by dubbing the Prime Minister “Theresa Maybe”. Though May’s Downing Street is less concerned with the minutiae of what goes on in the public press than David Cameron’s, the contention that she is indecisive was a source of frustration.

There is an element of truth in the claim that May still views the world through a “Home Office lens”. One senior minister complains that Downing Street considers the Ministry of Justice as a “rogue outpost” of May’s old stomping ground, rather than a fully fledged department with its own interests and perspectives.

Yet even the most authoritarian of home secretaries would struggle to secure a conviction against May on the charge of opacity as far as her Brexit approach is concerned. She has hit the same grace notes with the reliability of a professional musician: Brexit means freedom from the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice and control over Britain’s borders, two objectives that can only be achieved as a result of Britain’s exit not only from the EU but also the single market. This was confirmed on 17 January in the Prime Minister’s Lancaster House speech in London.

David Cameron used to say that he would never have “a people”. Certainly, there is no Cameroon tendency in the country at large to match the generation of council house residents that became homeowners and lifelong Conservatives because of Margaret Thatcher and Right to Buy. However, there is, unquestionably, a Cameroon people or faction to be found at almost every rung of London’s financial services sector or at editorial meetings of the Economist, though it as at the Times and the Sun where the treatment of May is at its most noticably rougher than in the Cameron era. 

Michael Gove, her old rival, is not only employed as a columnist by the Times; he enjoys the confidence and admiration of Rupert Murdoch. That the Times secured the first British interview with Donald Trump was a coup for Murdoch, an old associate of the president-elect, and for Gove, who conducted it. It left May in the unlovely position of making history as the first prime minister to be scooped to a first meeting with a new American president by a sitting MP in modern times. It also attested to a source of frustration among May’s allies that she is, for all her undoubted popularity, still ignored or doubted by much of the right-wing establishment.

That condescension partly explains why her words are often listened to briefly, acted on hastily and swiftly forgotten, hence the pound’s cycle of falling when she makes an intervention on Brexit and rising shortly thereafter. The Lancaster House speech was designed to break this pattern. Downing Street briefed the most potent paragraphs at the weekend so that the markets could absorb what she would say before she said it.

As a result, the pound rallied as May delivered her speech, which contained a commitment to a transitional deal that would come into effect after Britain has left the EU. Some financiers believe this arrangement could become permanent, which once again demonstrates how much they underestimate May’s ability to enforce her will.

Being underestimated by Cameron’s people, in Westminster and the City, has the unintended effect of shoring up Theresa May’s position. A prolonged and sustained bout of panic would increase the pressure for a soft landing, but its absence makes it harder for Labour to oppose her effectively, although it has largely acquiesced to the Tory plan for Brexit, at least as far as membership of the single market is concerned. 

Yet for all the plaudits that the Prime Minister’s Lancaster House speech attracted, for all her undoubted popularity in the country, she is in the anomalous position of being a Conservative Prime Minister who has priorities on the European stage other than the preservation of the City of London and to whom Rupert Murdoch is not a natural ally.

As such, she may find that her deadlier enemies come from the right.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.