A passive approach to bank stakes is inadequate

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The primary purpose of government investment in financial institutions is not to ensure that the taxpayer gets its money back – although that issue should certainly not be neglected – but to ensure that ordinary banking functions operate well.

Governments of the world are becoming major shareholders in their financial institutions. The British government owns two mortgage lenders – Bradford & Bingley and Northern Rock – is likely soon to hold a majority of the capital of the Royal Bank of Scotland, and to be much the largest shareholder in the combined HBOS/Lloyds TSB. The US government has a dominant holding in AIG, one of the world’s largest insurers, and will soon hold a similar position in Citigroup, making it the biggest financial institution of all. Fortis and ABN Amro are owned by Benelux governments. And so on.

Early socialists must be chuckling in their graves. But this government control of the commanding heights does not represent the triumph of socialism over capitalism, but the necessity of pragmatism in the face of failures of capitalism. Governments do not want to own these stakes, and are not quite sure what to do with them.

Nationalised financial institutions have often been badly run businesses which served neither their owners nor their customers well. But recent experience has shown that privately owned financial institutions have often been badly run businesses which served neither their owners nor their customers well. One might argue that the private businesses served their customers better than their owners; while the state-owned ones served their owners better than their customers. Such are the inherent contradictions of capitalism, as Marx would have put it.

The British government has perhaps the clearest strategy. It has set up an organisation called UK Financial Investments. The intention is that UKFI should act as a relatively passive shareholder in these businesses with a view to a quick realisation. UKFI is modelled on the Shareholder Executive established five years ago to hold government stakes in other companies. The reports of the Shareholder Executive read rather like the updates a private equity house might prepare for investors.

But this answer is not adequate. The problems are evident in these reports from the Shareholder Executive. The government owns businesses such as Royal Mail and the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority for a reason. The rationale of public ownership is that there is a strong public interest, not just in the financial returns from these activities, but in what these businesses do and how they operate. The government does not, cannot and should not have the same kind of relationship with the companies it owns as a private equity owner.

That does not mean that the Shareholder Executive is a bad idea. Officials in government departments are often ignorant and naïve when faced with issues that are the day-to-day concern of private equity professionals and investment bankers; their expertise needed reinforcement. But while the government has an interest as investor, that cannot be its only interest: if it were the only interest, then government should not be an investor at all.

So with banks. The government will not recapitalise Woolworths because it matters little to the wider economy whether or not Woolworths stays in business. The government does recapitalise banks because there is a vital public interest in the continued operation of the payment system and the availability of finance to small- and medium-size businesses. So the primary purpose of the investment is not to ensure that the taxpayer gets its money back – although that issue should certainly not be neglected – but to ensure that these ordinary banking functions operate well.

But no one who talks to small business owners today can believe that that objective is being met. If it was much too easy to get loans in the salad days, it is much too difficult to get them in the locust years. The consequences of the loan restrictions are plunging the non-financial economy into depression. If there are concerns over the availability of mortgage finance – and there should be – then it is absurd to run down the very efficient mortgage administration activities of the two mortgage banks the British government owns. We taxpayers have rescued these financial institutions for a specific purpose, and we should use our stakes in them to insist that this purpose is fulfilled.

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