The Great Debate UK
The crisis at Northern Rock marked the beginning of Britain’s slide into large-scale state ownership of the banking system. Returning the mortgage lender to the private sector would be a sign that normal service is being resumed. But rumours that the British government is poised to sell Northern Rock, are premature. Suggestions the government could do so at a profit are even more far-fetched.
Prime Minister Gordon Brown is apparently keen to offload the Rock, ideally “at a substantial profit” before the general election, which must be held before next summer. According to the Times, the prime minister “wants desperately to avoid a Conservative government taking the credit”.
It would be lovely to think the government’s main worry is who might benefit from the “profits” from the banking bail-out, rather than the substantial losses it has underwritten at the state-owned banks. There are plenty of thorny matters to be settled before the Rock is sold.
The government itself has two conflicting objectives. As a shareholder, it wishes to sell its stakes as soon as it can, and to be able to dress up the sale as a profitable exit. However, as the guardian of the economy, it wants to moderate the rate at which the banks shrink their balance sheets, because that denies credit to viable businesses and would-be homeowners. Indeed, the government recently instructed the Rock to stop shrinking its balance sheet and to start lending again.