70 per cent of the Royal Mail is now in private hands. Photo: Getty.
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Its share price has fallen, but the Royal Mail sale was still a debacle

The government lost between £750m and £1.7bn in selling off the Royal Mail – or three times as much as the bedroom tax might save.

An announcement today, from the recently privatised Royal Mail PLC, has reignited the debate over whether the company was sold incompently by the coalition.

A slight fall in the share price has led some to suggest its IPO was not quite the disaster it first appeared – when its share price rocketed nearly 40 per cent in one day.

But, by any measure, the sale still appears to have been an abject failure.

Royal Mail’s shares were priced at £3.30 when they floated in October. Within hours they had risen nearly 40 per cent.

The spike wasn’t an aberration, as Vince Cable – the minister responsible for the sale – tried to suggest. (The other minister involved was Michael Fallon, who has since been made Defence Secretary.) The price stayed high, and within three months it had nearly doubled in value.

The current price is back in line with the price to which it rose on the first day of trading. At that price – around £4.50 per share – the government’s mispricing cost the taxpayer between at least £750m, but at January's peak price it cost £1.7 bn.

Cable has claimed that this outcome would have been impossible to predict, and criticism is all very well in hindsight. But the department was under no obligation to sell its 70 per cent stake all at once. It used a procedure called "book-building" to choose its floation price of 330 pence, and could have pursued similar measures to calculate the value of its shares.

Instead, it relied on the advice of many of the financial firms behind the last economic crisis – some of whom have been criticised by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism over their conflicts of interest – and sold almost all of its shares in bulk.

They did this despite the fact that the pre-launch demand for shares was 24 times greater than supply. It scarcely takes an economist to consider that a mispricing.

As a result, Royal Mail’s shares rose twice as much as any other new shares did on their opening day in 2013.

The £750m lost through the sale has cost far more than, for instance, the government's roundly-criticised bedroom tax is projected to save, and is twice as much as the nation spends on museums and galleries.

But, even more distressingly, the justification for the sale – a promise of long-term capital investment – quickly unraveled. The government allocated more than a fifth of the Mail's shares to 16 "priority investors" before launch. These were ‘long term, stable investors’, Cable declared in the wake of the sale.

But, by January, 75 per cent of them had sold at least 48 per cent of their holdings, and six of the 16 no longer owned a single share.

As usual, the government was left at the whim of private institutions who were placed under no obligation to deliver. After the stratospheric rise in the company's value, these financial firms made the quick profit made open to him.

Now, hedge funds, and other financial firms that were initially classed as "non-priority, long-only" funds, hold more of the company than the 16 priority investors who were used to justify the sale.

The past year has been relatively slow for the coalition. The Programme for Government, on which they ushered themselves into power, was never formally updated, and in June they announced the fewest bills by a government in 20 years.

But the selling of the Royal Mail was one of the great changes of the past year. Unfortunately, it has simply served as the latest example of how inept the government often is at selling the "family silver".

The Royal Mail is the company that delivers parcels and letters. It is (now) distinct from the Post Office, which operates the 11,500 red-lettered branches that pepper your local high street. The Post Office remains in government hands.

The government argued the service desperately needed private capital in order to reinvest and uphold its "universal service". Putting the firm in private hands ensured it wouldn’t compete with "schools and hospitals" for government funding.

They pointed to equivalent services across Europe – in Belgium, Austria and Germany – that moved into profit after privatisation, and delivered levels of service that more than matched British standards.

But, while this argument appears persuasive, in practice the sale has shown the way government appears incapable of mandating anything to the private firms it often relies upon. It also ignores the non-monetary benefits a government-owned service can provide.

It is the same problem that has plagued the government’s attempts to reform welfare, make the banks lend more, or introduce any large IT project.  

Harry Lambert was the editor of May2015, the New Statesman's election website.

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It's easy to see where Berlin is being rebuilt – just hit the streets

My week, from walking the streets of Berlin to class snobbery and the right kind of gentrification.

Brick by brick, block by block, the people are rebuilding the city once called Faust’s Metropolis. To see it clearly, put your boots on. One of the most bracing walks starts by the Gethsemane Church, which served as a haven for dissenters in the last days of the GDR and takes you down ­towards the Hackescher Markt.

Here, in what is still the eastern half of a divided city that wears its division more lightly, is a Berlin experience both old and new. In three decades of frequent visits, it has been fascinating to note how much this part of town has changed. Even a decade ago these streets were rundown. With crumbling buildings showing bulletholes, it wasn’t hard to imagine what the place looked like in 1945. Now there are lilacs, blues, and yellows. Cafés, bars and restaurants abound, serving the young professionals attracted to the city by cheap rents and a renewed sense of community.

 

Breaking the fourth wall

Looking north along Schliemannstraße, you’ll find a delightful vista of well-tended balconies. It’s a pleasant place to live, notwithstanding the gaggle of grotesques who gather round the corner in the square. On Kastanienallee, which forms the second leg of the walk, an old city feels young. It’s a kind of gentrification but the right kind. There’s more to eat, to drink, to buy, for all.

Berlin, where Bertolt Brecht staged his unwatchable plays, was supposed to have been transformed by a proletarian revolution. Instead, it has been restored to health by a very middle-class one. Germany has always had a well-educated middle class, and the nation’s restoration would have impossible without such people. The irony is delicious – not that irony buttered many parsnips for “dirty Bertie”.

 

The new snobbery

The British Museum’s survey of German history “Memories of a Nation” is being presented at the Martin-Gropius-Bau as “The British View”. Germans, natürlich, are curious to see how we observe them. But how do they see us?

A German friend recently in England  said that the images that struck him most forcibly were the tins of food and cheap booze people piled up in supermarkets, and the number of teenage girls pushing prams. Perhaps Neil MacGregor, the former director of the British Museum who will shortly take up a similar role here at the new Humboldt Forum, may turn his attention to a “German View” of the United Kingdom.

There’s no shortage of material. In Schlawinchen, a bar that typifies Kreuzberg’s hobohemia, a college-educated English girl was trying to explain northern England to an American she had just met. Speaking in an ugly modern Mancunian voice that can only be acquired through years of practice (sugar pronounced as “sug-oar”), she refer­red to Durham and York as “middle class, you know, posh”, because those cities had magnificent cathedrals.

When it comes to inverted snobbery, no nation can match us. To be middle class in Germany is an indication of civic value. In modern England, it can mark you as a leper.

 

Culture vultures

The Humboldt Forum, taking shape by the banks of the Spree, reconsecrates the former site of the GDR’s Palace of the Republic. When it opens in 2018 it will be a “living exhibition”, dedicated to all the cultures of the world. Alexander von Humboldt, the naturalist and explorer, was the brother of Wilhelm, the diplomat and philosopher, whose name lives on in the nearby university.

In Potsdamerplatz there are plans to build a modern art museum, crammed in between the Neue Nationalgalerie and the Philharmonie, home to the Berlin Philharmonic. Meanwhile, the overhaul of the Deutsche Staatsoper, where Daniel Barenboim is music director for life, is likely to be completed, fingers crossed, next autumn.

Culture everywhere! Or perhaps that should be Kultur, which has a slightly different meaning in Germany. They take these things more seriously, and there is no hint of bogus populism. In London, plans for a new concert hall have been shelved. Sir Peter Hall’s words remain true: “England is a philistine country that loves the arts.”

 

European neighbours

When Germans speak of freedom, wrote A J P Taylor, a historian who seems to have fallen from favour, they mean the freedom to be German. No longer. When modern Germans speak of freedom, they observe it through the filter of the European Union.

But nation states are shaped by different forces. “We are educated to be obedient,” a Berlin friend who spent a year at an English school once told me. “You are educated to be independent.” To turn around Taylor’s dictum: when the English speak of freedom,
they mean the freedom to be English.

No matter what you may have heard, the Germans have always admired our independence of spirit. We shall, however, always see “Europe” in different ways. Europe, good: we can all agree on that. The European Union, not so good. It doesn’t mean we have to fall out, and the Germans are good friends to have.

 

Hook, line and sinker

There are fine walks to be had in the west, too. In Charlottenburg, the Kensington of Berlin, the mood is gentler, yet you can still feel the city humming. Here, there are some classic places to eat and drink – the Literaturhauscafé for breakfast and, for dinner, Marjellchen, a treasure trove of east Prussian forest delights. Anything that can be shot and put in a pot!

For a real Berlin experience, though, head at nightfall for Zwiebelfisch, the great tavern on Savignyplatz, and watch the trains glide by on the other side of Kantstraße. Hartmut Volmerhaus, a most amusing host, has been the guvnor here for more than 30 years and there are no signs that his race is run. The “Fisch” at twilight: there’s nowhere better to feel the pulse of this remarkable city. 

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage