Financial crisis: just how big is Britain’s toxic debt?

An army of accountants is combing through the books, trying to establish just how much the toxic assets of the bailed-out banks are actually worth. At stake, says the Government, is the future of Britain’s economy.

Toxic asset: Sir Fred Goodwin of RBS has seen his reputation collapse Photo: REUTERS

Before he was unceremoniously fired as chief executive of Royal Bank of Scotland, Sir Fred Goodwin often said that he had turned the 280-year-old institution into “a sausage machine”.

RBS, like other banks, was buying and selling pre-packaged parcels of debt, which started out as mortgages and loans but were put through a corporate mincer and wrapped into packages containing small pieces of hundreds, if not thousands, of loans. Rather like sausages, no one could be entirely sure what was in them – but as long as they paid a decent rate of interest and the bonuses kept flowing, no one cared.

As we all now know, those parcels had been bulked up with sub-prime loans, which became effectively worthless “toxic assets” when the US housing market crashed.

Confirmation yesterday that the bankers’ avarice has officially plunged Britain into recession added to the growing bewilderment as to exactly why we are on the hook for almost £1 trillion in bail-outs and guarantees.

No one even knows exactly how many of these toxic assets British banks are holding, and how much more it might cost the taxpayer to get out of this unholy mess – which is why an army of accountants is about to begin the daunting, if not downright impossible, task of tracking down and putting a value on all the debts of all the banks in which the taxpayer has taken a stake.

In effect, to borrow Sir Fred’s analogy, the Government-appointed debt hunters will be carrying out the accounting equivalent of dissecting all of those sausages and turning the constituent parts back into pigs. It will be a laborious, thankless task which is likely to take at least six months. But according to the Government, nothing less than the future of Britain’s economy depends on it.

The reason all the rescue packages have failed is that no one has yet calculated the full extent of these toxic assets – and nothing spooks the City so much as uncertainty. Lord Myners, the minister organising the hunt, says his sleuths will have to deal with “well over a billion items of individual data for each bank”.

The desperate need for some hard and fast facts was underlined on Monday, when the value of banking shares collapsed, despite the announcement of a raft of new measures. Gordon Brown is said to have been taken aback by the City’s panicked reaction to RBS’s announcement of a £28 billion loss, the largest in British corporate history.

Experts say the losses reveal the markets’ fear of more bad news to come. Despite the Government pledging £954 billion so far – or £31,800 per taxpayer – some analysts believe another £200 billion in insurance may be needed to protect the banks fully against future losses. But no one is willing to predict that it won’t be more, just as no one can be sure that our children, or even our grandchildren, won’t still be paying off the debts the nation is accruing, as this economic black hole swallows a seemingly limitless amount of our money.

In other words, until the number-crunching is done, there is no prospect of an end to the crisis. “The problem is that we don’t really know just where these bad assets are, and the banks are not going to ‘fess up,” explains Peter Spencer, professor of economics at York University. “As things stand, it is a near-bottomless pit, and no one knows how smelly the stuff at the bottom is.”

The Prime Minister is pinning his hopes on the Asset Protection Scheme, announced this week, which will assess the exact extent of the toxic assets (currently estimated at £200-350 billion). The theory goes that once the banks know the worst-case scenario, and are insured against it by the taxpayer, they will be able to start lending again.

But the Government-appointed investigators, drawn mainly from Goldman Sachs, Credit Suisse and Deutsche Bank, will be entering uncharted waters when they set up shop in the offices of banks such as RBS. Few people on the planet understand the complexities of such opaque instruments as collateralised debt obligations (the technical term for those minced-up sausages of debt, of which £2 trillion were traded in 2006, £188 billion of it in the UK). In some cases they were dreamed up by real-life rocket scientists, poached by Wall Street from Nasa’s labs in California.

Until as recently as 2000, British banks lent only as much money as they held on deposit. But the availability of cheap financing on the money markets enabled banks such as Northern Rock to lend up to seven times the amount in their coffers.

Rather than holding on to people’s mortgages, the banks packaged them up with other loans and sold them on to investors, who could repackage and sell them on again and again. Unpicking these bundles of debt may involve tracking down and valuing the assets on which they are based – such as houses or commercial properties, or even part-shares of them.

Nor will the vastly complex, and vastly expensive, hunt be confined to Britain. To pick just one example, RBS acquired 26 other companies during Sir Fred’s eight-year reign, leaving it with £250 billion of foreign loans in the more than 50 countries where it has offices. These include Vietnam, Columbia, Uzbekistan and Pakistan, where RBS is the second-largest foreign bank – there are even seven branches in Kazakhstan, all of which are now 70 per cent owned by the British taxpayer.

Many of those loans will be sound, but the investigators must sniff out those that are not. “It will be a very intensive job and we will need to get professional support,” one Treasury source says. “It’s complicated, but if you didn’t have these complicated problems, there wouldn’t be a crisis in the first place.”

But how could the banks lose control to such an extent?

“Greed is part of the answer,” says Vince Cable, the Liberal Democrat Treasury spokesman. “We have had a bonus culture in which profits were the only motivating factor, and bankers were getting enormous bonuses on the back of very highly leveraged deals. It’s also the case that even some of the bosses didn’t understand the things they were trading in, because they had become so complicated. The banking regulators knew this and should have put a stop to it, but they didn’t.”

It wasn’t just the executives who failed to understand what was going on – the Prime Minister and his team were equally clueless. Treasury officials who began going through the books of RBS when the Government took a majority share last year were horrified at the way the bank had been run, as it borrowed more and more money to fund more ambitious deals, such its share of the £49 billion takeover of Dutch bank ABN-Amro in 2007.

The previously lionised Sir Fred has now been labelled “the world’s worst banker”, with growing calls for him to be stripped of his knighthood. Although the Financial Services Authority insists that there is no evidence he broke any rules, many investors who have lost money believe he was less than candid about the state of the bank’s finances and recklessly overstretched himself in the battle for ABN-Amro.

In America, RBS’s subsidiaries are already the subject of two separate investigations. The Securities and Exchange Commission and New York’s attorney general are both looking into the exposure of RBS-owned companies to the sub-prime mortgage crisis.

Although he has said he is “angry” with Sir Fred, Mr Brown refused to be drawn this week on what action, if any, should be taken against his former friend, who was a valued adviser during his time as Chancellor.

Nor has anyone at the Treasury offered an estimate of how much it will cost to work out the value of the toxic assets.

Yet many of the country’s leading economists believe that there is an alternative to the scheme: to nationalise the entire banking system to restore confidence, and take control of lending once and for all.

George Magnus, chief economic adviser to UBS Investment Bank, and the man credited with being the first to predict the current global recession, says: “There is a danger that a few months down the line further measures will be needed to shore up the banks. It would be cleaner, neater and cheaper just to call a spade a spade and take them into public ownership.

“That would enable the Government to set up a ‘bad bank’ that could take on these toxic assets and hold on to them for 50 years if necessary, until their value rose and the taxpayer saw a return.

“In the meantime, once the crisis is over, they could refloat the banks, as they did in Sweden in 1992. I just don’t understand the hang-up the Government has with nationalisation.”

Professor Tim Congdon, a former adviser to the Treasury, agrees. “The idea of having these civil servants poring over the banks’ books is barmy. There are much simpler solutions, such as the Government borrowing from the banks to increase the amount of money in the system.”

One thing all sides are agreed on is the need for a return to old-fashioned banking, preferably without so much as a rocket scientist – or sausage machine – in sight.

By Gordon Rayner
Last Updated: 7:27PM GMT 23 Jan 2009

Source: The Telegraph

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