The furore over Sir Fred Goodwin’s massive pension worked as an effective smokescreen for far worse financial news that the Government was happy to keep out of the public eye.
Lord Mandelson, asked Sir Fred Goodwin (pictured), to give back some of his pension
As scapegoats go, Sir Fred Goodwin is straight out of Central Casting. He’s a banker; he’s mucked up big time, cost the taxpayer sums still too large to calculate properly, and he’s walked away from the mess with riches beyond the avarice of a Premiership footballer. All he lacks, as a media villain, is a pair of staring eyes and record of cruelty to animals.
If Alastair Campbell were still around, Sir Fred might have been saddled with even that. But this week, as loomed the handing to banks of further barrels of public cash on what the furniture stores used to call easy terms, the Government had no need for nudge-nudge rumours of scuttlebutt to create a diversion. It had information even more incriminating and instantly unpopular: the size of Sir Fred’s pension pot.
It was huge; it was blood-pressure raisingly indefensible; and, above all, it seemed politically useful. Ministers had known the scale of it for months; something pretty close to its size had been reported on City pages as far back as 14 October last year. But it had never become An Issue. Now the time for it to do so had arrived. And so, on Wednesday evening, the exact magnitude of it was leaked to Robert Peston of the BBC. He went on air and could barely get the numbers out for hyperventilating: Sir Fred’s pot of gold was worth £16.9m; the man – so the story went – whose megalomaniac regime of compulsive acquisitions had brought down the Royal Bank of Scotland was now retired, at the age of 50, with a pension worth £13,000 a week for the rest of his life.
The ploy worked. By the following day, Fred’s Pension was dominating the news and provoking all the anti-banker indignation that a government spin-doctor hoped it might: “These fat cats must have their fortunes neutered” (Daily Mail), “Obscene: I won’t give up a penny” (Daily Express), and “No shred of shame; RBS boss Fred” (Daily Mirror). Yet all the while, behind this smokescreen, hundreds of billions of taxpayers’ cash was being committed to the banks on terms that seemed bewildering. This – the biggest leap in the dark in British economic history – is what the row over Fred’s pension concealed. It is a story that should now be told.
For a long time, it has been known that the big scheduled domestic event of last week would be RBS’s results. Their gargantuan size was widely expected, and the final figures didn’t disappoint: £24.1bn in the red – bigger than any American bank could manage, vastly outscoring some of the week’s other losses (such as housebuilder Barratt’s £592m), and relegating to barely visible footnotes the other depressing statistics of the week, such as household spending declining at its fastest rate since 1991; house prices down 15 per cent in a year; and service sector job losses at a 10-year high.
RBS’s losses, and those of Lloyds HBOS the following day, meant a further extension to the Government’s bailout, and taxpayers’ exposure. The size of the potential commitment to the banks is estimated at £1.3 trillion, equivalent to the value of the British economy for a whole year, and a burden equal to possibly as much as £36,000 for every man, woman and child in the country. And there could yet be more unpleasant discoveries. Looming rather less large in the public consciousness than Sir Fred’s pot was the appearance before the Treasury Select Committee of Mervyn King, Governor of the Bank of England. Fully five months after the present crisis began with the collapse of Lehman Brothers in September, he told MPs that it is still not known just how big the liabilities of British banks are. In his evidence to the Treasury Select Committee last week, he said it would take “many months” to establish the scale of toxic assets held by banks, requiring a detailed assessment contract by contract.
Also overshadowed by Sir Fred’s pot was the size of the latest government support for the banks. For a fee of £6.5bn, RBS will place £325bn worth of toxic assets in the Government’s newly created Asset Protection Scheme. The bank will then be liable for only the first £19.5bn of these dodgy assets, with the taxpayer accepting the risk of the rest. The shadow chancellor, George Osborne, said: “The British taxpayer is insuring the car after it has crashed.” Lloyds Banking Group’s participation is not yet finalised, but is expected to involve about £250bn worth of toxic assets.
Read moreThe 1.3 trillion pound bank job