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Last Updated: Tuesday, 15 January 2008, 12:59 GMT
Rock shareholders asked for help
Union members protest outside Northern Rock meeting
Northern Rock's share price has fallen further
Northern Rock has asked shareholders to help put the troubled bank "on the road to recovery".

The lender's chairman, Bryan Sanderson, moved to reassure investors and said that a review of the bank's business should be completed by mid-February.

Almost 600 shareholders attended the meeting in Newcastle - their first chance to grill management since the bank ran into trouble last September.

Shareholders want a bigger say in the bank's sale process.

But analysts have warned that if they succeed, the lender is certain to be nationalised, leaving investors with little or nothing for their shares.

Shareholder interests

"We cannot reverse history but with your support, we can set the company on the road to recovery," Mr Sanderson told shareholders.

"I assure you we are doing all that we reasonably can to look after the interests of shareholders, and we have you at the top of our minds."

The Newcastle-based bank is Britain's most high-profile casualty of the global credit crisis.

Its share price has fallen from more than 12 in February last year to trade at 70.25 pence, sliding more than 14% on Tuesday, as the meeting got underway.

Shareholders made their way past a protest by Northern Rock staff to attend the meeting at Newcastle's 11,000-seat Metro Arena.

Rescue deal

Speculation that Northern Rock is about to be nationalised has intensified since the weekend.

It emerged that the Treasury had put together a fully developed plan to own and manage the bank, should a rescue deal with a private buyer prove impossible.

This includes lining up the businessman credited with turning around the fortunes of the Lloyd's of London insurance market, Ron Sandler, to take charge in the post of executive chairman.

I sit and re-read the letters from the bank and the hedge funds, but really there is no conclusion
Sylvia Murphy, Northern Rock shareholder

The Conservative Party would oppose any legislation to nationalise Northern Rock, the BBC has learned.

Senior Tory sources have told the BBC that they cannot foresee any circumstances in which they would support a bill to nationalise the bank.

But Chancellor Alistair Darling told reporters on Tuesday that it would be "irresponsible" to rule out any option.

Earlier, he said in a speech that a private sector solution to the Northern Rock crisis was preferred, but all options, including nationalisation, would be considered.

Proposals

The developments came as thousands of investors in Northern Rock cast their votes on resolutions to restrict the bank's ability to sell the company's assets or issue new shares.

These proposals were put forward by Northern Rock's two biggest shareholders, hedge funds RAB Capital and SRM Global, which together own about 18% of the bank, to prevent its assets being sold off on the cheap.

They say shareholders should have the power to block any moves to sell more than 5% of Northern Rock's assets, issue large chunks of new shares, or buy any assets.

Northern Rock's management and analysts have urged shareholders to vote against these proposals, saying they could endanger any possible commercial solution.

David Greene, head of litigation at law firm Edwin Coe and a representative for the bank's small shareholders, told the BBC that he didn't believe a vote in support of the proposal would make nationalisation any more or less likely.

"The question that's being addressed today is, how do shareholders control these quite extraordinary circumstances," said Mr Greene.

Northern Rock has named Sir Richard Branson's Virgin Group as preferred bidder for the bank, but it remains in talks with investment firm Olivant about a rival proposal.

Confusion

Many of the bank's 180,000 shareholders were awarded their shares when Northern Rock demutualised 10 years ago.

Some say they are confused about the right course of action.

One shareholder, Sylvia Murphy from Cramlington, said: "If you vote for Northern Rock, can you trust the management to do the right thing? But if you vote with SRM and RAB, will they do the right thing?"

The debacle is set to blow out of the water a resonant manifestation of Gordon Brown's financial prudence, the sustainable investment rule
Business editor Robert Peston

Armand Borisewitz and his wife, from Aberdeen, obtained 500 shares each when the company demutualised and at one point they were worth 12,000 in total. At Northern Rock's current share price, they would be worth about 700.

He believes a class-action should be brought against Northern Rock's previous management, but as for the future direction of the company, he "hasn't got a clue".

Northern Rock was forced to go to the Bank of England for a cash lifeline last September, when it was unable to raise the required funds to run its mortgage business as money markets seized up.

It has been given about 26bn of Bank of England emergency loans, but with government guarantees to savers and other lenders, the total aid package underwritten by the taxpayer comes to more than double that.

This could have severe political repercussions for Prime Minister Gordon Brown, whose reputation as chancellor was defined by his supposed adherence to financial prudence, says BBC business editor Robert Peston.

He argues that whether or not Northern Rock is nationalised, the government will be forced to include a large portion of the bank's balance sheet into its public sector accounts, breaching the prime minister's sustainable investment rule.

VIDEO AND AUDIO NEWS
Northern Rock staff protest outside the meeting



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