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UK Govt marks Royal Bank of Scotland’s decade of woe with £2.5bn share sale

A decade ago, RBS was teetering in the lead up to what would become the global financial crisis, now, all this time later, the UK government has sold a tranche of its bail-out shares back into private hands
RBS high street branch / store front
The UK taxpayer now owns about 62% of the bank

When the news came that the government had sold off a tranche of taxpayer-owned shares in Royal Bank of Scotland PLC (LON:RBS) there was little surprise in the market.

Nonetheless, the confirmation was sufficiently material to send the bailed out bank’s share price sliding lower.

Some 925mln Royal Bank of Scotland shares were sold to institutional investors, at a price of 271p, to recoup £2.51bn for the UK Treasury.

READ: RBS shares weak as UK government confirms share sale

The disposal represented some 7.7% of the bank's shares and it saw the government’s stake reduce to 62.4%, from 70.1%.

Reports of a potential share sale surfaced in the media last week, and, it comes within weeks of a somewhat inauspicious 10-year anniversary of the bank’s collapse in 2008.

Plainly, it has been a long and expensive story for the company, its shareholders and the British taxpayer - and, in case you’ve forgotten or blocked out the details, here’s a recap of what happened and when.

April 2008: A £12bn rights issue

Just over a decade ago - a few months before the almost innocuous sounding ‘credit crunch’ became the global financial crisis – RBS shareholders were asked to pony up some £12bn in a rights issue.

At the same time, the group’s insurance business (which then included the Direct Line and Churchill brands) were also put out to auction.

The April 2008 cash call, which at the time was the biggest ever rights issue, seemingly bought the failing bank some time, but, not very much.

August 2008: The first of many losses

The summer brought the bank’s first but certainly not last financial loss, with interim figures showing a £691mln dive into the red.

Quickly, it was becoming apparent that not only was the £12bn spring fund-raising insufficient to steady the balance sheet, but, that the situation was, in fact, much worse than feared.

Shareholders had put in good money after bad, meanwhile, fuelled by complacency and hubris there were still some market speculators scooping up what they thought would be cheap shares. A ‘once in a lifetime buying opportunity’ was how it was seen by more traders than would now own up to it.

Having already slumped to around 2,000p, from pre-crunch highs above 6,000p in 2007, there was a belief among many stockbrokers, accustomed to easy money bull markets, that one of Britain’s premier banking stocks couldn’t possibly go much lower.

They say hindsight is 20/20, and, in this case it was eye wateringly clear only weeks later.

September 2008: Lehman Brothers collapse

Widespread chaos followed a summer of angst when, in September, Lehman Brothers (which had at the time been America’s fourth largest investment bank) collapsed.

October 2008: £45bn government bail out

In the UK, Gordon Brown had taken the Westminster helm following Tony Blair’s resignation in June, and by October the new Prime Minister’s government decided that Britain’s banking sector was “too big to fail”.

And so, the government ‘bailed out’ RBS, along with Lloyds and HBOS before the latter pair's arranged marriage.

With a £45bn bail-out, the UK taxpayer was now on the hook.

RBS shares were worth just over a fiver each by the turn of the year, though the price continued lower - the lowest level would be seen quite a while later in 2012.

Nearly 90%-owned by the Treasury, for a period, RBS was a nationalised bank in all but name and technicality.

Fred the Shred and Political football

It wasn’t a shock to anyone as the bank and the broader financial system became a heavily kicked political football.

Fred Goodwin, the RBS chief ejected in the immediate aftermath of the bail-out, was sat in front of a Treasury select committee by February 2009 delivering what he described as a “profound and unqualified apology”.

Goodwin was very much in the spotlight again months later, in April, when the bank’s financial results revealed he would receive a £703,000 a year pension – three months of scorn and vilification later, he conceded to forego £200,000 of his annual allowance.

A little over three years on from the crash, in December 2011, with the country now run by David Cameron’s Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government, an official report blamed “multiple poor decisions” as it concluded a post-mortem on the failed banking business, though Goodwin was not punished. He did, however, have his knighthood taken away a year later in January 2012.

For a while, with the exception of a June 2012 IT mishap that cost the bank a £50mln fine, controversy moved into the background for RBS. The bank and the market managed to find some semblance of a ‘new normal’.

February 2013: Scandals, sackings and price fixing

However, in February 2013, almost five years since the crash, new problems presented themselves, starting with a £390mln fine amid a scandal over the rigging of LIBOR – London’s interbank lending rate.

Stephen Hester, Goodwin’s successor, left his position as RBS chief executive in June 2013. He was replaced by Ross McEwan who stepped up from his role running the bank’s retail banking arm. The move was later followed by a new strategy which prioritised retail rather than the investment banking business that was ground zero for the 2008 collapse.

In November 2014, RBS and other banks were hit with another big fine - this time for price fixing in foreign exchange markets.

By August 2015, the Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne had agreed to sell a 5% stake in RBS, representing a £1bn loss for those shares and saw the taxpayers’ holding reduced to 72%.

Settlements, profit and share sales

At the end of 2016, legal settlements worth £800mln were agreed with shareholder groups in relation to the pre-crash rights issue - further settlements followed with other groups.

RBS’s financial results in February 2017 conceded that the bank would not make an annual profit for at least another year.

A few months later, in April 2017, Osborne’s successor at the Treasury, Philip Hammond, acknowledged publicly that the taxpayer would see a loss as the government intended to advance plans to dispose of its shareholding.

“We have to live in the real world,” Hammond said.

Forwarding on to the present, this April brought confirmation of RBS’s first annual post-crisis profit with the bank making £752mln and promising to reinstate dividends.

Earlier this month, RBS struck an agreement for a £3.7bn (US$4.9bn) settlement with the US Department of Justice, winding up the bank’s involvement in the prolonged investigations into risky lending practices that preceded the financial crisis.

Significantly, the settlement was much better than the worst-case which has been expected to be up to twice as large.

May 2018: A further share sale in the planning

Speculation is now growing around an anticipated further sell-off of government held equity, with reports suggesting that a further 10% chunk of RBS is set to be sold back into private hands.

Anticipated to raise around US$3bn, the share sales would realise another substantial loss for the Treasury’s ‘investment’.

Meanwhile, the most recent estimates from the Office of Budget Responsibility reckon the UK taxpayer could see a total of £15bn recouped from the sale of RBS shares over five years.

RBS holds its annual general meeting on Wednesday, where dividend resumption is likely to be on the agenda, together with questions over the government’s position and, as is typical at such public meetings, scrutiny over executive pay.

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