The Great Debate UK

Should a country always stand behind its banks?

Ever since the financial crisis broke in 2008 some of the world’s major banks have their governments to thank for their survival. The fates of Royal Bank of Scotland or Citibank would have been much worse without large injections of capital from the UK and U.S. authorities. The UK government pumped more than £37 billion into its largest banks in the immediate aftermath of the Lehman Brothers crisis. Ireland took that a step further when it guaranteed all of its banks’ deposits and liabilities. This was affordable, the Irish government said at the time.

However, this policy failed spectacularly. Ireland’s bailout of its banking sector brought the country to the edge of bankruptcy and forced it to accept a 82 billion euro bailout loan from the IMF/ECB and the European Union. More than 30 billion euros of this loan is to re-capitalise the Irish banking sector and the rest is to shore up the state’s finances. The conditions of the loan mean that Ireland will have to implement harsh austerity measures for many years to come that will inevitably hurt growth.

So should governments always stand behind their banks? There are some success stories. Back in 2008, when the global financial sector teetered on the brink of collapse, it was necessary for the world’s major central banks and governments to offer unlimited support to their banks. The chief reason for this was to ensure that credit flowed through the economy to foster growth. In truth however, a mixture of stringent capital rules caused banks to shrink their balance sheets in the teeth of the recession, which didn’t help the overall economy but did boost their balance sheets. In the first six months of 2010 the UK’s four largest banks: Lloyds Banking Group, Royal Bank of Scotland, Barclays and HSBC (the latter two did not receive bailouts) made combined profits of £13.6 billion. This is a far cry from the £22.3 billion they lost in 2008.

The U.S. banking sector has also seen earnings recover sharply. The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) announced that the earnings for U.S. banks rose by $14.5 billio in the third quarter of 2010. Now that the banking sector is back on its feet again one can hope that credit conditions will also become more supportive of economic growth. And strong earnings also increase the chances that taxpayers will profit from the capital injections at some point.

Oh dear Oudea, it’s deja vu at SocGen



– Margaret Doyle is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are her own –

French boards have a funny way of exacting retribution from their bosses. When the board of Societe Generale realised that it had lost 4.9 billion euros in rogue trading last year, it didn’t sack the boss.