Ten years after the Northern Rock run, have the crash’s lessons been heeded?

London Briefing: The UK banking system is an ‘accident waiting to happen’

Run on the Rock: when queues of panicked savers formed outside Northern Rock branches in 2007 it was the first run on a British bank since the collapse of Overend & Gurney, in 1866. Photograph: Peter Macdiarmid/Getty

Run on the Rock: when queues of panicked savers formed outside Northern Rock branches in 2007 it was the first run on a British bank since the collapse of Overend & Gurney, in 1866. Photograph: Peter Macdiarmid/Getty

 

It was 10 years ago on Wednesday that Robert Peston, the BBC’s business editor at the time, stunned the City – and the rest of the UK – by revealing that Northern Rock, then the country’s fifth-largest mortgage lender, had sought emergency funding from the Bank of England.

Lengthy queues of panicked savers formed outside Northern Rock branches the next morning. It was the first run on a British bank since the collapse of Overend & Gurney, in 1866.

There have been far bigger casualties in the financial sector since the run on the Rock, but the sight of those savers waiting desperately to withdraw their life savings will remain a defining moment of the crisis.

Ten years on, have the lessons of the crash been heeded? And can we be sure that the banking system is really any safer than it was when Northern Rock collapsed?

The answer to that, according to a hard-hitting report published today by the Adam Smith Institute, is a resounding no. The United Kingdom’s banking system is “an accident waiting to happen”, the report warns. And, were there to be another shock similar in scale to that seen in 2007-8, it could still collapse.

The report’s author, Kevin Dowd, is professor of finance and economics at Durham University and a senior fellow at the institute. He is scathing of the steps taken by the Bank of England since the crisis.

Stress tests used by Threadneedle Street to measure the stability of the system are, he says, “about as useful as a cancer test that cannot detect cancer”.

A tour of the John Lewis Residence

“They seek to demonstrate a financial resilience on the part of UK banks that simply isn’t there,” he says. In his view, “the biggest risk facing the UK banking system now is the Bank of England’s own complacency”.

Dowd believes the tests should be based on market values rather than the book values of banks’ assets and securities. Using book values, bank leverage has fallen by about a third since 2006; on the basis of market values, however, leverage has actually increased by about a half, he says.

Dowd wants the Bank of England to scrap the current stress tests and focus instead on raising capital standards, reforming accounting standards and establishing tighter corporate governance.

Few saw the global financial crisis coming 10 years ago, and when Northern Rock first ran aground there was widespread hope it would prove an isolated case of an overambitious lender paying the price for its own reckless behaviour.

The Bank of England will disagree with Prof Dowd’s analysis, but, should the unthinkable happen, we can’t say we weren’t warned this time.

Try before you buy – by staying the night

Bouncing around on a mattress in a furniture showroom must be one of life’s more embarrassing experiences. But the new boss of Britain’s favourite department-store group plans to give customers a proper chance to try before they buy – with an overnight stay in one of the shops.

In October the John Lewis Partnership launches the Residence, a fully furnished apartment built inside its flagship store, on Oxford Street in London. Customers will be able to stay the night, testing beds, mattresses and other products before they make a purchase.

Paula Nickolds, who took on the top job at the John Lewis chain at the start of the year, says the retailer isn’t just selling a mattress: “We are selling a perfect night’s sleep.”

It’s one of a number of new initiatives from Nickolds, the first woman managing director in the retailer’s 153-year history. In another move aimed at forging a closer relationship with its customers, the retailer is moving into home maintenance, with the launch of a register of trusted tradespeople, from plumbers to gardeners and electricians.

They are being put through a “rigorous” process before being allowed to join the register, which currently includes about 150 names. Any work they undertake will be guaranteed for a year.

Some employees at the group are also being sent to drama school in a bid to improve their confidence and presentational skills with customers.

A limited number of John Lewis branches outside London will also build “fully furnished and completely shoppable” in-store apartments. More details – such as whether customers will be charged for their overnight stay on London’s busiest shopping street – should be forthcoming when the group announces its half-year results on Thursday.

Such is the popularity of John Lewis that it’s unlikely to have much difficulty finding customers to fill the Residence. The real problem might be getting them to leave the next morning.

Fiona Walsh is business editor of theguardian.com

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