Tuesday, 8 December 2009

Grim Reading

If you want to really make yourself angry ready for a showdown with the boss or to get in the mood for a hard game of rugby, please read the attached description of the Asset Protection Scheme as pertaining to our wonderful investment, RBS.

On the face of it, there is nothing new in there. We have known for some time that as taxpayers we would be underwriting about £280bn of toxic assets accumulated by the bank. In many respects we were led to believe that the grimmest story was contained within ABN AMRO bank, the ill fated and disastrous acquisition made by RBS just prior to its demise. How glad we must be to find that in fact half of the stupid lending at RBS was plain old loans to the UK public, small businesses and property companies - what may be described as banking basics. There are quite a few derivatives in there too but not half as many as you might think.

Now, cast your mind back to when our glorious leader said boldly that it was sub-prime mortgages in the US that precipitated the Credit Crunch. How wrong he indeed was. His good friend, the man he knighted, Fred Goodwin was hard at getting the very basics of banking wrong. Fred 'The Shred' was well known for acquiring companies and then shredding costs and getting supposed 'value' for the assets, but he wasn't actually much good at banking per se, it appears. The risk assessments and controls at RBS must have been pitiful because most of the assets we are now underwriting, frankly, should not be there.

Where, oh where, was the FSA when all this was going on? Where, oh where, was the Government? The problems stemmed from the basic, basic rules of banking, and knowing that RBS was leveraging money on the wholesale money markets to finance his business big time, could we not see that this was a company doomed to fail? Yet even up to the wire, the Government and regulator reckoned RBS was a company with enough capital to survive.

It is a story of incompetence and hubris that runs through the entire credit crunch story. We only needed sub-prime to expose the rottenness underneath - it was merely the bit that was showing at the time. RBS was doing its own 'sub-prime' right here under our noses - the US had very little to do with it as it may as well have started right here.

I read the grim details of what I am insuring this morning and while I got very angry with RBS, I was more angry with the fact that people in senior positions did not know what was going on - like at the FSA and Government. It really reflects how little our most senior and supposedly intelligent people know about how the Credit Crunch actually came about and therefore casts more than my major doubt on the measures they have taken to get us out of it.

To be precise about that - Alistair Darling is now bickering about introducing a windfall tax on bonuses and excess profits at banks. However, the problems that were created were right at the very heart of the banks - the basics. That is where the real flaws exist and the whole ability to trade poorly assessed debt is where the money is made. Any debt was good as it could be traded many, many times for vast profits and no one ever cared about the original debt itself or the assets it financed or the ability of the person or company to service it. It did not matter - the money was in the trading of the debt, not the debt itself. The money to buy more debt was cheap and plentiful and no need to get deposits to pay for it - the world was perfect and still is. This is a basic but subtle difference in semantics but it's where the whole problem originated.

The crisis was about what banks do, not about the money they and their employees make. Taxing them may help purge the soul and win votes, however impractical it will be to implement if at all, but it will not stop it all happening again.

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