Inside The Banking Crisis – The Untold Story
Hugh Pym. Bloomsbury. £22.99
Inside the banking crisis – the untold story
As one of the BBC’s senior economic correspondents, Hugh Pym covered the banking crisis from its revelation in 2007 to the present day.
As late as July 2007, he recalls, the banking world was still in a state of denial – as least publicly.
The chief executive of Citigroup, Chuck Prince, had dismissed fears the music was about to stop , declaring his company was “still dancing” and while “the party would end at some point there was so much liquidity at the moment it would not be disrupted by the turmoil in the US sub-prime mortgage market”.
As Pym observes, the story of the crisis has no neat ending and while future generations may have cause to be grateful to the politicians and officials who prevented a catastrophe, they will not thank them for leaving massive debts and liabilities to be paid for a long time to come.
Still, as this book recounts in great detail, it could have been a lot worse. With the exception of small group of ministers and policy-makers working frantically in Whitehall and the City of London, nobody going about their business in October 2008 had any idea of just how vulnerable Britain’s financial system was.
Pym focuses on the key event that took place that month, just a few weeks after the collapse of Lehman Bros.
Gordon Brown emerges as a strong and insightful figure through the crisis, coordinating responses both on a domestic and European level.
Angela Merkel, initially seeing the crisis as a Anglo-American centred one, and hostile to Brown at a summit in Paris, is forced to change her position as there is a growing realisation that European banks had comprised themselves equally, investing in the same type of mortgage-backed securities as US institutions caught up in the sub-prime crisis.
Brown is credited with making astute appointments in the heat of the crisis. Paul Myners, an experienced city hand drafted into a key government post, is seen a crucial figure. Myners was visibly stunned at the scale of the deficits revealed at HBOS and RBS when given access to the files and helped develop a rapid Government bailout plan and coordination between banks and government officials.
As the RBS share price plunged by 40 per cent, major corporate investors with money in the bank hit the phone. Some of these had more than £5 million in deposits. In an extraordinary meeting at the Bank of England, RBS group treasurer John Cummins asked, poker-faced, if he could borrow a staggering £25 billion there and then.
What he did not know was that the same had been done for HBOS just a few days before. Brian Lenihan
It didn’t end there. At a European finance
ministers meeting a few days later, chancellor Alastair Darling is called out of the meeting by his adviser Geoffrey Spence to take a call from RBS chairman Sir Tom McKillop. McKillop tells Darling his bank is going to run out of cash within hours and asks: “What are you going to do about it?” Darling and Spence recall feeling physically sick.
As the scale of the crisis becomes ever more evident, resistance from the Bank of England collapses and plans are brought forward for the announcement of the decision to pump £50 billion (€61.7 billion) of taxpayers’ money into the banks and underwrite £250 billion of lending between banking institutions.
Brown was aware of the scale of the unprecedented gamble he was taking, asking an aide: “Do you think I will still be prime minister at the end of the day?” The aide replies: “I don’t know but you will be going out doing the right thing.”
Ireland gets some passing mentions. When we launched our unilateral bank guarantee, there was huge concern about the flow of deposits from UK banks into Ireland.
RBS subsidiary Ulster Bank looked especially vulnerable to a flow of deposits south of the border. Darling voiced his irritation to minister for finance Brian Lenihan in a hastily arranged call and received “an apology of sorts” we are told. When it was pointed out to him the Irish banks’ balance sheets, like the UK’s, were considerably larger than total Government spending, Lenihan allegedly responded he hoped people wouldn’t notice.
Well-researched and colourful, Pym’s work provides some valuable inside detail on the monumental political and financial events of those fateful days.