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British banking is much healthier than here

The contrast between the response of the British and Irish governments to the international financial crisis that erupted in the autumn of 2008 couldn't have been starker.

While Ireland unconditionally guaranteed the deposits and bonds of the Irish-owned banks and hoped that the problem would somehow go away, former UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown and his Chancellor Alistair Darling went in with all guns blazing.

In the space of a few weeks the British government had pumped £76bn of fresh capital into the two weakest British banks, RBS and Lloyds, insured Stg£280bn of bad assets, guaranteed Stg£250bn of wholesale bank lending, and indemnified the Bank of England against losses of up to Stg£200bn providing liquidity to the banking system.

The British government's bold action, which at one stage exposed the British taxpayer to a potential liability of up to £1.2trillion, has meant that the UK banking system has been gradually restored to some semblance of health with all of the "Big Four", HSBC, Barclays, RBS and Lloyds, recording first-half profits.

The slow recovery of the British banks means that the state shareholdings in RBS and Lloyds are now worth close to £75bn, almost as much as the British government paid for the shares two years ago.

Of course all is not sweetness and light across the water, far from it. The drastic public spending cuts being planned by the UK government will almost certainly depress the economy and hit bank profits in the short term.

Bigger threat

However, a bigger threat is almost certainly a looming funding shortage for the banks next year.

A report published yesterday by the New Economics Foundation think-tank estimated that the UK banks would need to borrow £25bn a month from the British government in 2011.

"Based on Bank of England data, banks now appear to face a funding cliff," according to the report's authors Andrew Simms and Tony Greenham.

At present the UK banks borrow about Stg£12bn on the wholesale financial markets. However, the NEF reports estimates that this will rise to Stg£25bn a month next year as existing government supports for the banking system expire.

The NEF report claims that the UK banks will be unable to bridge this funding gap without state support.

"The public sector is likely, once again to be asked to bail out the banks for the emerging funding gap", the report claims.

But are the report's assertions reliable? The NEF is a left-leaning think-tank and the report uses the claim that the banks will need even more public support next year to argue for separating the banks' retail from their investment banking activities.

It also calls for the development of "sustainable" banking and questions the degree of public oversight of the money which has already been advanced to the banking system.

Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne has also strongly rejected the report's claim that there will be a need for a new UK bank bailout next year. Even so, regardless of who turns out to have been correct, by comparison with our own shattered banking system the UK banks are in rude good health.

Irish Independent