Thursday, 5 May 2011

Problems deepen at Lloyds Bank - but it could be part of the solution

By Michael Burke

The initial market reaction to the announcement that Lloyds Bank had made a £3.5bn loss in the first quarter of this year was for the share price to fall by nearly 6%. Every British taxpayer has a material interest in Lloyds as the state effectively controls it through a 41% shareholding.

At the time of writing the share price had fallen to a little over 54p per share, whereas the average purchase price by the state was 68p – see Figure 1. Taxpayers are now nursing direct paper losses amounting to nearly £1bn on the share purchases. However this is a tiny fraction of the total costs incurred by the state in bailing out the banks, which has mainly been in the form of providing funds to the stricken banks rather than share purchases.

Figure 1 – Lloyd’s Bank Share Price

11 05 05 Lloyds
According to the Office for National Statistics (ONS) the total debt incurred in ‘financial market interventions’, that is the bank bailout, was £1,335bn, significantly more than the level of state debt incurred via spending and taxation which currently amounts to £903bn.

For all the lurid headlines about both, the debt and the budget deficit actually fell in the last Financial Year (FY) from £156bn to £141bn under the impact of the recovery fostered by Labour’s increased spending - which has now stalled under the Tory cuts. Similarly, the debt level, excluding the bank bailout,t amounts to 59.9% of GDP which is fractionally below the Maastricht Treaty limit and lower than British public debt in every year between 1916 and 1970.

A chunk of Lloyds’ net loss come from a charge of £3.2bn from the miss-selling of payment protection insurance to individuals, many of whom could never have claimed on the insurance. Many other High Street banks are also guilty of the same swindle. Even so, without this charge there would still have been a loss compared to a profit of £721mn in the previous year.

This renewed loss is a product of the banks own current business practise. Income fell 20% as it reduced its assets and curbed its lending. However, losses on its existing loans are increasing (to £2.6bn in the latest quarter) as borrowers continue to struggle and the economy stagnates. In effect this is a policy of hoarding its capital and hoping that something positive will turn up which will improve the existing loan book. However, this is also the policy of all the other banks too and total bank lending to non-financial businesses and individuals has fallen by £74bn in March from a year ago, which was itself £102bn lower than the previous year.

Worse, government policy now exacerbates this trend as it also cuts spending and investment and makes incredible forecasts that something (net exports?, business investment?) will turn up. As a result of capital hoarding and reduced government spending, nothing is turning up.

But Lloyds, in common with the other High Street banks has considerable capacity to increase its lending. SEB has previously shown that the banks are sitting on large capital assets which could be used to increase loans. The Financial Service Authority (FSA) has performed rigorous ‘stress tests’ on all the major banks. The stress test show what would happen to the banks’ balance sheets from a series of events which include a double-dip recession, a rise to 12.5% unemployment, a further 60% fall in house prices and default by one or more European government. Even if all of these events happened simultaneously the FSA estimates that Lloyds Bank would have Tier 1 capital equal to 9.2% of its assets to act as a cushion against losses, compared to 8.0% set as the international standard. Lloyds is actually the weakest of the banks on this measure.

Even so, this implies that Lloyds could increase its lending by 15% and still meet international safety limits for its capital under an extreme economic scenario. The current policy of hoarding capital and accumulating losses is having the opposite effect, the Tier 1 capital ratio fell by 0.2% in the quarter. The bank is becoming more, not less risky as a result .

The opposite approach would be one which benefitted Lloyds shareholders (including the state) and the whole economy. This would be driven by a sharp increase in productive lending, with a positive investment return. Here the role of government is decisive. It could instruct Lloyds to make a sure-fire investment in state-owned housing. The housing shortage in Britain is both chronic and acute, with the lowest number of homes built in 2010 since 1923. 1.8 million households are on council waiting lists and even those who could afford to buy a home cannot find the mortgage financing, where Lloyds has led the way in reducing its lending.

A state-led investment programme in housing, in conjunction with local authorities and financed by state-controlled banks, could produce affordable homes yielding 6% or 7% a year in rents, double the government’s cost of borrowing and so provide a net return to invest further, or to reduce the deficit. Ed Balls has previously called for £6bn investment in 100,000 new affordable homes. This could be done via the State-controlled banks without any increase in borrowing at all. It would also create 750,000 new jobs in a sector decimated by unemployment. 750,000 new jobs would also have a twofold benefit to public finances, much higher tax revenues from both income and consumption and much lower welfare payments.

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