The immediate crisis at Northern Rock has passed, but only because the government has spent an estimated £40bn. of our money preventing the bank from collapse. This was a desperate strategy, only resorted to because of fears that the collapse of Northern Rock might lead to the failure of other banks and eventually the collapse of the whole banking system.
This is a huge public investment, of the same order of magnitude of the whole of health spending in one year, which is somewhere above £50bn. these days. It raises several questions about the meaning of a democratic society. Perhaps the most important is why a reckless financial institution, that produces nothing of value, can be bailed out in this way, while countless manufacturing companies which produce useful goods and employ many more people have been allowed to fold to conform to the iron law of the market. Clearly, the interests of capital carry more weight than the interests of labour.
The most important questions to be decided now are who should bear the loss of the bad investment decisions taken by the bank's board, and who should see the value of the assets it still holds. Should the British public really be asked to compensate shareholders who made poor judgements? They see the gains when their tricks pay off; what sense can there be in calling this a financial market if they do not also see the losses?
In terms of the assets the vultures are circling hoping to prey on the carrion at the expense of the British public. An offer to pay £1 for the bank is not a generous bid but rather a grab for the significant assets still owned by Northern Rock. Of the 'bidders', Branson and Flowers have both been the beneficiaries of government largesse in the past and scent the opportunity to make a killing. The fee for saving the government's political bacon can be a generous one, giving new meaning to the phrase 'laughing all the way to the bank'.
A financial institution that was once a staid and responsible building society, operating for the mutual benefit of its mortgage-holders and depositors was transformed by demutualisation into a victim of destructive financial speculation, mediated by greedy shareholders who believed in returns to-good-to-be-true and the wideboys to whom they relinquished control of financial destiny.
As an alternative to a state-sponsored corporate buy-out, nationalisation of the bank has been mooted. But rather than a nationalisation resulting in state ownership surely a remutualisation is a better solution. Shareholders, whether instutitonal or personal, can lose their stake as a lesson to themselves and others about rapacious expectations and dodgey dealing. The government can limit public investment to ensuring the value of depositors investments, while the remaining assets of the bank will be the homes of its mortgage-holders.
Governance can revert to an board elected from among the lenders and borrowers of the building society, as was traditionally the case. Calls for independent financial experts to play a major role have surely been utterly undermined by the disgraceful performance their have displayed thus far in this and other banks the world over.Tweet