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5 December 2012

Lord Stephenson – dishonest or delusional?

Ex-chairman of HBOS called to account.

By James Ratcliff

The Bank of England has said that the economic impact of the financial crisis was on a par with the Second World War. And the wannabe Inglorious Basterds on the Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards continue to call to account the war criminals.

It all feels a bit like old news now… We know full well that HBOS was badly run. We know about the secret bailouts, the “spirit of optimism” that led to disaster.

This week it was the turn of Lord Stephenson. The ex-chairman of HBOS was – and still is – suave and silver-tongued. He is the kind of man who you believe when he says something like

..there was just no way we [the HBOS leadership] were encouraging a culture of excessive risk-taking.

But one committee member – Lord Lawson – wasn’t having any of it. “You are living in cloud cuckoo land,” he said.

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And to remind ourselves just how risk-averse HBOS was in the lead-up to the melt-down, we should recall the story of Benny Higgins. A bona fide banking superstar, Benny Higgins joined HBOS in 2006 from RBS, where he had overseen the successful integration of NatWest into the group.

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After less than two years, he left HBOS under a cloud, having presided over the dramatic reduction of the bank’s  mortgage book. With hindsight it sounds prudent and praiseworthy action. At the time, however, he was universally pilloried for presiding over such a huge loss in market share.

And in the wake of this “disaster”, silver-tongued Stephenson was there to reassure twitchy stakeholders that the bank would bounce back and regain its position in residential mortgages. Not only that, but he wrote to the FSA (a letter since published by the Commission), emphasising that HBOS was a “highly conservative institution”.

I am not aware of any lurking horrors in our business or our balance sheet. Quite the reverse … HBOS in an admittedly uncertain and insecure world is in as secure a position as it could be.

Happy to be crossed questioned on this but I hope you know me well enough to know this is neither a bravura nor an ill considered statement.

There you are – a man in control… Confident and reassuring. A year later the bank had been merged with Lloyds and was being bailed out by the taxpayer to the tune of £17 bn.

We could rely on Lord Lawson to remind Stephenson just how much bravura there was in that statement. “Either you were being dishonest when you wrote that or, if you believed it, you were delusional,” he said.