RIP FSA?

22 07 2009

FSA LogoGeorge Osborne, the shadow chancellor, said that the Conservatives planned to get rid of the Financial Services Authority if they were to win the next general election. Under their plan, the FSA would be renamed to the Consumer Protection Agency and would be responsible for consumer issues while the Bank of England would have overall power and would also be responsible for monitoring and regulating the banking sector. This move would abolish the tripartitie system consisting of the FSA, the Bank of England and the Treasury which was set up in 1997 by the then chancellor and now Prime Minister, Gordon Brown.

Leaving the pros and cons of such a policy on one side, I don’t think it’s right to announce definite plans of what would happen to the FSA if the Tories were to win power. That is because it diminishes FSA’s authority now when it is trying to regulate the banking sector as nobody will then take them seriously because everybody knows that the FSA’s days are numbered.

Think of a CEO that announces that he is to step down after a year and names his successor. Who do you think will hold the real power now, the CEO or the person who will succeed him? A leader with a sword over his head doesn’t have any significant power as everybody in the organisation will listen to the new guy who will eventually be in power.

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Rather than really bring about a change in the banking regulation, it seems that by announcing their plans, the Tories are trying to earn some political brownie points by taking advantage of Gordon Brown’s unpopularity.

Even though it may be obvious from the numerous polls and the general sentiment amongst the public that the Conservatives are going to win the next election, it does not mean that they have won the election and are in power. The mainstream media are increasingly interpreting the phrase “if the Tories win the next general election” as “when the Tories win the election”.

The thing is, whether we like it or not, Gordon Brown is still the Prime Minister and the problems plaguing the financial sector have to be dealt with now, by those who are in power now. By announcing that the FSA is doomed and the media hanging on to George Osborne’s every word, it affects the authority that the people in power have when they try to be though with those running the financial institutions.

So when you read the headline “FSA warns banks over long-term bonuses” in the Financial Times, you don’t picture a strict headteacher warning a student, but instead picture a lion without any claws or teeth in a zoo letting out an inaudible whimper rather than a ferocious roar. If the regulators and policy makers have no authority, how is the change to be brought about. It’s no wonder then that some of the financial institutions, which not less than a year back, were on the brink of collapse and some even went to the government cap-in-hand asking for financial help are now announcing record profits and are still trying to pay bonuses even when the so called “bonus culture” has been criticized by the regulators, the prime minister and the chancellor for hastening the speed of the financial mess.

Sure, its necessary for the public to know the policies of each party to enable them to make an informed decision about whom they will cast their vote. But for a political party that is desperately trying to distance itself from the negative publicity from the MPs expenses scandal and hoping to win the next general election, it doesn’t seem right when it tries to capitalise from its opponent’s unpopularity and kicking him while he is down.

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Deposits Fall by £2.3 billion

25 02 2009

northern-rock-queue1According to the figures released by the BBA (British Bankers Association), deposits in the high street banks fell by £2.3 billion in January alone.

One of the reasons for this is that people who have lost their jobs are having to use their savings to supplement the loss of their income. Even those who are still employed, but have been forced to reduce their working hours or accept a pay cut, have to withdraw from their savings to meet the shortfall. Those who bought houses when the prices were at their peak are having to use their savings to bridge the gap when their mortgage nears renewal. Many are also dipping into their savings to pay off their credit card bills from Christmas and other unsecured loans.

Also, with the base rate at 1% most high street banks are offering almost no significant rewards to savers for their money. There is almost no incentive for people to save. So, those with savings are looking for alternative forms of investment, something that will at least give them a rate of return above or at least matching the inflation rate.

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A typical banking model is banks borrowing money from savers in the form of deposits and lending that money out to borrowers in the form of mortgages, loans, credit cards, overdraft, etc. The bank charges the borrower a fee, in the form of interest, for the sum of money that is lent out. The bank gives the depositor a reward, in the form of interest, for allowing it to use its money. The fee that the bank charges the borrower is slightly higher than the rate which it pays out to its depositor, and the difference is pocketed by the bank.

Banks are still finding it difficult to borrow from the money markets. And even if they can, its going to be really expensive, which means that the extra cost would have to be passed on to the borrower. So, if deposits are decreasing and savers are withdrawing more money, banks have very little to fall back on. Also, savers have, to a great extent, lost faith with the banks. They will no doubt feel that their hard earned cash is being used to pay bonuses and reward failure.

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It seems like banks will have to go a long way in winning the trust of the consumer and offer more than the paltry rewards to attract their savings. Without the deposits, they’ll find it really hard to fund the lending. Unless, of course, the name of the bank is Northern Rock which has access to the pockets of the taxpayers. Northern Rock was nationalised and was lent some £28bn by the Government last year. It payed back most of it, around £18bn, by forcing its existing customers to move to other providers. This week it pledged that it would offer new mortgages which will be worth around £14bn over the next two years. It most certainly wont be anywhere near the 100% it used to offer.

The overall sentiment seems to be that if bankers want their customers’ money, they will have to work really hard to get it, because the customers would rather spend it on themselves than paying the bankers to spend it for them.

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Unemployment nears 2 million

13 02 2009

natwest-moneysense

According to the figures released by the BBA (British Bankers Association), deposits in the high street banks fell by £2.3 billion in January alone.

One of the reasons for this is that people who have lost their jobs are having to use their savings to supplement the loss of their income. Even those who are still employed, but have been forced to reduce their working hours or accept a pay cut, have to withdraw from their savings to meet the shortfall. Those who bought houses when the prices were at their peak are having to use their savings to bridge the gap when their mortgage nears renewal. Many are also dipping into their savings to pay off their credit card bills from Christmas and other unsecured loans.

Also, with the base rate at 1% most high street banks are offering almost no significant rewards to savers for their money. There is almost no incentive for people to save. So, those with savings are looking for alternative forms of investment, something that will at least give them a rate of return above or at least matching the inflation rate. 

A typical banking model is banks borrowing money from savers in the form of deposits and lending that money out to borrowers in the form of mortgages, loans, credit cards, overdraft, etc. The bank charges the borrower a fee, in the form of interest, for the sum of money that is lent out. The bank gives the depositor a reward, in the form of interest, for allowing it to use its money. The fee that the bank charges the borrower is slightly higher than the rate which it pays out to its depositor, and the difference is pocketed by the bank.

Banks are still finding it difficult to borrow from the money markets. And even if they can, its going to be really expensive, which means that the extra cost would have to be passed on to the borrower. So, if deposits are decreasing and savers are withdrawing more money, banks have very little to fall back on. Also, savers have, to a great extent, lost faith with the banks. They will no doubt feel that their hard earned cash is being used to pay bonuses and reward failure.

It seems like banks will have to go a long way in winning the trust of the consumer and offer more than the paltry rewards to attract their savings. Without the deposits, they’ll find it really hard to fund the lending. Unless, of course, the name of the bank is Northern Rock which has access to the pockets of the taxpayers. Northern Rock was nationalised and was lent some £28bn by the Government last year. It payed back most of it, around £18bn, by forcing its existing customers to move to other providers. This week it pledged that it would offer new mortgages which will be worth around £14bn over the next two years. It most certainly wont be anywhere near the 100% it used to offer.     

The overall sentiment seems to be that if bankers want their customers’ money, they will have to work really hard to get it, because the customers would rather spend it on themselves than paying the bankers to spend it for them.
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HSBC to increase its lending

9 12 2008
HSBC

HSBC

The World’s Local Bank HSBC announced on Monday that it aimed to lend next year roughly two times the amount it lent to homeowners in 2007. For this purpose, it has set aside around £15 billion. In an environment where banks are becoming increasingly reluctant to lend money, HSBC hopes to increase its market share by lending, thereby getting a huge slice of a, albeit, small market. It is also hoping that its customers will continue to bank with it even when the climate improves, because they will remember that HSBC was there for them when all the other banks closed their doors. This will mean that when the market does get bigger, they will effectively have a huge slice of a huge pie.

So, how can HSBC afford to increase its lending when other banks have had to be injected with capital by the taxpayers. HSBC is one of the few banks thathasn’t gone to the taxpayers cap-in-hand asking for a cash injection, it is in fact well capitalised, according to its CEO Michael Geoghegan . According to its spokesperson, HSBC doesn’t have to depend on the two main sources of finance that the banks that were bailed out depended on- the money markets and UK depositors. It will instead fund it internally using its reserves. The reason why other banks are lending less money is because they don’t have enough money to lend.

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It is true that last Thursday the MPC (Monetary Policy Committee) cut the base rate by 1% to 2%-the lowest it has been for years. However, the primary source of finance for most banks is not by borrowing from the Bank of England, but from the money markets. The rate of interest in the money marketshasn’t gone down at the same rate as the base rate. Hence, the cut in the base rate is unlikely to make the cost of borrowing money any cheaper. Another source of finance for banks is their customers’ deposits. However, in recent years, the levels of savings in the UK is said to have decreased. The cut in savings rate by the banks is unlikely toentice people into put their hard earned cash into banks, except for those whom the interest paid is their income.

HSBC also announced a £1 billion fund for lending to small businesses. Small Businesses that are fundamentally sound and only experiencing cash flow problems are the kinds of businesses it is hoping to lend to. The reluctance of banks to lend to sound businesses has been it the news recently, forcing numerous businesses to cease trading just because they have a cash flow problem and not because their business model is fundamentally flawed. The increase in the number of small businesses going bankrupt no doubt puts the jobs of many people at risk and leads to fear amongst those that are in employment. Small business owners, no doubt, will welcome this announcement which will be akin to a lifeline being thrown at them when they are in dire straits.

It has stressed, however, that the lending criteria will still be strict. In other words, they are not planning to throw money at anybody who asks for it.

Even if this announcement does not completely restore confidence, any good news is welcome in these gloomy times. It is unlikely that any other major bank will come forward and increase its lending in the near future, no matter how much Brown, Darling orMandelson threaten or cajole them into doing so. In a way, one cannot blame the banks which have been bailed out for being reluctant or in their words, “careful”, of lending. On one hand, they are the subject of many a joke and their “irresponsible” lending is being blamed for all this mess, and on the other hand, they are being pushed to lend at levels of last year.The money which has been lent to the banks on behalf of the taxpayers has not come cheap, the banks have had to pay a hefty price for it.





First the Chancellor giveth, then the Chancellor taketh away.

25 11 2008

Chancellor of the Exchequer, Alistair Darling

Chancellor of the Exchequer, Alistair Darling

Yesterday, the Chancellor Alistair Darling announced in his Pre-Budget Report the much talked about 2.5% cut in the VAT, bringing it down to 15% from 17.5%. In the same breath, he also announced an increase in income tax for those earning £140,000 and above. From April 2011, people falling into this income bracket will have to pay income tax at the rate of 45p.

The cut in VAT is to come into effect from the 1st of December. This leaves ample time for businesses to revise their prices and change the all the labels in the stores, but at the same time, being just in time before the Christmas shopping.

So, how will the change affect the prices? Will a loaf of bread or a bunch of carrots be any cheaper? No, because food products do not attract VAT. Surely, utility bills as a result will go down. Sadly, no because the VAT on utilities such as gas and electricity already have a lower rate of VAT charged at 5%. A cut of 2.5% doesn’t look as if it will make a huge difference in prices, especially compared to the generous 20%, 35%, 40% discounts offered by the retailers already.

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Then, the motive behind the cut is to give confidence to the consumers to go out and spend. But, confidence cannot be used to pay for a brand new PlayStation 3, can it? You need something else, namely, money. The primary reason why people are spending less money on the high street is because they have very little surplus left over after paying the high utility and food bills. And those who have enough surplus choose to save it for a rainy day.

That’s because it’s almost impossible to see a news report nowadays without it mentioning yet another company announcing job cuts. This creates uncertainty among those who are employed about the security of their jobs. Those who have recently been made redundant have no choice but to save money. But those who have a job also save since they don’t know how they are going to put food on the table next month or meet their mortgage repayments.

Another thing that’s hard to miss in a news report is an interview with the boss of a SME (Small & Medium Enterprise) business who has been denied a loan from his bank, or has had his overdraft facility cancelled. This leads to cash flow problems which means the business cant pay its staff, pay its utility bills, or even buy raw materials to maintain production. In addition, creditors, who owe money to the business, are unable or reluctant to part with their money. As a result, staff numbers have to be cut down adding to the number of unemployed across the country.

How can such news create confidence?

Perhaps, the Chancellor should look at reducing the VAT temporarily on utilities, or even get rid of them for the time being. More importantly perhaps, he should make sure that SMEs, who are perfectly healthy, should have access to loans and overdrafts at a reasonable cost to maintain their cash flow. After all, the SMEs are not asking for charity, just for funds which they are prepared to pay back with due interest. It makes sense for the Government to ensure that businesses that are perfectly sound to not go bankrupt just because they do not have enough cash or credit to meet their current liabilities. After all, the SMEs employ a lot of people in the private sector of the economy and contribute to the Treasury in the form of National Insurance and Corporation Tax. Since people are employed, it saves the Government the trouble of have to pay job seekers allowance, hence reducing its outflow.

So, it is perhaps job security and income security that will encourage the consumers to go out and spend, as Alistair Darling and Gordon Brown along with countless retailers are eagerly hoping, fingers crossed.

But it seems highly unlikely that the cut in VAT will have the intended purpose of instilling confidence among the consumers and going on a spending spree, but for the sake of the economy and the countless people who are unemployed, lets hope its not all in vain. The high earners are certainly hoping for it, since they are going to be paying for it, come 2011.

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Meeting with Headteacher Darling.

8 11 2008
Alistair Darling, Chancellor of the Exchequer. Image from TimesOnline

Alistair Darling, Chancellor of the Exchequer. Image from TimesOnline

Since many of the banks had seemed to have failed to pass on the Bank of England’s very generous 1.5% cut in interest rate to their customers on the Standard Variable Rate (SVR) mortgages, the mischievous bankers were summoned to a meeting with the head teacher, a.k.a., Alistair Darling, the Chancellor of the Exchequer. They were told to pass on the interest rate cut to their customers, or else, face detention.

A standard variable rate is where the interest rate is tracked by the lender, solely at its discretion, to the base rate of the Bank of England or the LIBOR rate. So, the obvious excuse that the bankers gave for not passing on this cut was that the cost of borrowing money on the open market, i.e., the LIBOR rate, had not come down at the same rate. That’s true, although the LIBOR rate did drop by 1.07% from 5.56% to 4.49% on Friday. The lowest rate since May 2004, incase you thought why it was that significant.

Bowing to pressure, Lloyds TSB, Halifax, Nationwide, Abbey, Royal Bank of Scotland, NatWest (part of Royal Bank of Scotland), Northern Rock and Bradford & Bingley have all cut the interest rate by a full 1.5%. Also, the fact that the LIBOR rate has fallen makes it hard for the banks to justify their reluctance to pass on the cut.

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Usually, the banks are quite quick to match a hike in interest rate by the Bank of England because it allows them to justify doing so. However, they don’t seem so keen when the rate is cut.

The opposite is true for the savings rate. Most banks have been more than happy to cut the interest rates on their savings account using the recent cut in rates by the Bank of England as the justification. This hardly seems like the right thing to do when banks are desperate for funds to lend and one of the sources is the deposits by the customers, the other being borrowing on the open market. Since its expensive to borrow on the open markets, as the banks themselves are saying, they should be trying to entice customers to deposit money.

But what’s amusing is that Alistair Darling and his advisors actually assumed that the banks would pass on the cut to their customers. Why would they? They are not charitable institutions that work for the best interests of their customers. They are financial institutions whose main aim is to make profit and make their shareholder’s investment in them worthwhile. Lets not forget that banks all across the globe have lost billions, if not trillions, of pounds in the financial crisis. So, it is but obvious that they would try hard as they could to make up for the loss.

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No wonder then that people have literally started to stuff cash under their mattresses. The chief executive of G4S, the security transport company, Nick Buckles, recently said that the amount of cash in the system had increased since people are preferring to use cash instead of credit. It emerged recently that the number of £50 notes in circulation had increased by 20%.

He added, “People use it as a means of budgeting. They don’t like credit, so clearly there’s more cash transactions, more ATM transactions. And I guess the £50 note issue is people hoarding cash at home.”

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Bank of England cuts base rate by 1.5%. But who will it help?

6 11 2008

The Bank of England (BoE) cut the base rate of borrowing money by a staggering 1.5% to 3% in a bid to stimulate lending and as a result stimulate spending. Well, we’ll have to wait and see if that happens. The people that will benefit from this cut are those who have tracker mortgages since this will mean a possible cut in their interest rates and their repayments.

For some, the decrease in the repayments might mean the difference between being able to meet the repayments and having their homes repossessed.

The market had definitely expected a cut in the interest rate, but of about 0.5%, not 1.5%. So, who will benefit from the cut? Not many, especially after how the banks literally scrambled to withdraw most of their tracker mortgage deals. A tracker mortgage is one with a variable rate of interest, which is above the base rate of the Bank of England by a set percentage either for the whole period of the mortgage or a period of time. The benefit of this is that when the rate goes down, so does the interest rate, and vice-versa when the rate goes up. However, some tracker deals will not track the base rate after it falls to a certain level or a minimum level, which is known as a “collar”. Halifax, for example, has a “collar” of 3%, which means that a further cut will not be beneficial to its customers.

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This means that first time buyers who were planning to get on the property ladder will have to look elsewhere. Its already beginning to look like the cut in the base rate has failed to do one of the main things it was supposed to do- enable first time buyers to buy properties. If first time buyers are unable to buy properties, this will certainly come as a blow for the construction industry since it means that their properties will remain empty and they will have to impetus or money to build new properties.

So, why have the banks been so quick in withdrawing their tracker mortgages? To protect their other more profitable mortgage deals, of course. Banks charge interest on their mortgages based not on the BoE’s base rate, but on the LIBOR (London Inter Bank Offered Rate). That’s the rate at which banks lend and borrow from one another. While the base rate has been steadily coming down, the LIBOR has proved to be more sticky, hardly budging at all. According to the data from www.thisismoney.co.uk, the LIBOR for the past four weeks has been between 6.28% and 5.68%. Much above the Bank of England’s base rate.

This means that tracker mortgages have a smaller profit margin than the other deals due to the vast difference in the interest rates. Clearly, deals whose rate are based on the LIBOR are much more profitable for the banks and it should then come as no surprise that they are withdrawing the tracker mortgages.

Another group of people who are likely to lose out are those who depend on the income they get from the interest they get on their savings.

Many people were praying, and certainly many more were hoping for a cut in the interest rate to provide them with some respite in these difficult times. While the cut might be a boon for them, for others, not so much.

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