Page last updated at 14:05 GMT, Friday, 7 August 2009 15:05 UK

When will we get our money back?

By Anthony Reuben
Business reporter, BBC News

At the end of a week of information overload from Britain's big banks, what have we learned?

RBS cashpoint

You know it is an unusual week when a press office calls to say that a figure you are using is not as bad as it should be.

That was just what happened with one of the banks reporting this week, and it reflected the way that the banks, especially those that have big stakes owned by taxpayers, have been keen to get any bad news out in the open.

Admittedly, that openness was not reflected in a willingness to put up chief executives for broadcast interviews with the BBC, with only Barclays and RBS agreeing to do so.

That was a shame, because given the amount of cash the government has pumped into the banking sector, taxpayers wanted clues as to when they could be getting their money back.

Remember, Northern Rock, which reported on Tuesday, is wholly state-owned, while Lloyds Banking Group is 43%-owned by the government and RBS is 70% state-owned.

Changing tones

So what really mattered was the tone of the announcements, and there was a great deal of variation.

While Lloyds announced by far the biggest write-offs, deciding the assets they own are worth £13.4bn less than it had thought, the bank also said it was confident that figure had peaked and that things were about to improve.

RBS on the other hand, "only" wrote off £7.5bn, but said that write-offs would stay high and results were unlikely to improve substantially for the next couple of years.

Graphic of bank profits

There has been talk in recent months that the government wants to sell Northern Rock before next year's general election, but BBC business editor Robert Peston says the chances of a profitable sale before then are very slim.

For all the talk of grim years to come from RBS, its shares closed on Thursday at 53.45 pence, which was above the government's break-even level of 50.5p.

The shares fell back after Friday's results were released, but it was still a sign that a profitable sale is not an impossible dream.

On that basis, Sir Stephen Hester's promise on Friday that the government will be able to sell its shares profitably within the next five years looks less ambitious.

Bad news

The break-even level for Lloyds is 122.6p, which is still a way off Thursday's close of 104.7p.

But there were many warnings in the week's results that there could be more bad news to come that would send those share prices falling again.

The danger of rising unemployment is a particular problem, as this is likely to increase the levels of bad debt and mortgage arrears.

Martin Weale, director of the National Institute of Economic and Social Research, commented on particular dangers to come for Northern Rock, 39% of whose mortgage holders owe more on their mortgages than their properties are worth.

"House prices may well go on falling this year, and with falling house prices and rising unemployment you will have more and more people who have taken out 100% or 125% mortgages saying 'sorry, we can't keep up the repayments'," he said.

Other banks were falling over themselves to stress the negatives.

Lloyds dismissed its £6bn pre-tax profit as being a figure "of limited benefit" and chose instead to highlight an underlying loss of £4bn.

RBS was keen to talk about a £1bn net loss instead of its £15m pre-tax profits, and described its own results as "poor".

It is perhaps no surprise that the strongest performances came from two banks that either turned down, or did not need, the government's money.

Barclays and HSBC both reported pre-tax profits of £2.98bn for the first six months of the year, although they were also plagued by bad debts.


It may be tempting to talk about the realisation of all this taxpayer money coming sooner rather than later, but it is important not to get ahead of ourselves.

It is less than a month since the body set up to manage taxpayers' stakes in banks, UKFI, warned that it would be "challenging" to sell those stakes.

"The amounts involved are very large, and a successful disposal of our holdings will require professionalism and patience," its report said.

But its acting chairman, Glen Moreno, later raised hopes that some of the money could be recouped in the near future.

"I would not be at all surprised to see some transactions occurring within a year or so... and continuing over the next several years," he told the BBC.

So it has been a busy week in which we learned more about the state of Britain's big banks and RBS shares have briefly risen above the price the government paid for them.

But while we could get some of our money back relatively soon, it looks like being a long time before the government stops being a big shareholder in Britain's banks.

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