RBS shares for all? That sounds like a real winner (Evening Standard)

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“Try as they might, bankers’ popularity remains anchored somewhere below that of estate agents and traffic wardens. An industry that was once at the centre of communities is eyed with suspicion. Its bosses pay themselves richly and treat customers with contempt, many account holders believe. In the aftermath of the financial crisis, it is a mindset that is hard to erase.

One concerted effort to win over consumers and politicians, Project Merlin, a pledge to rein in bonuses and dish up plenty of loans to small businesses, has failed to convince.

You’d think it wouldn’t matter to bankers, but it does. They are up for improving transparency and willing to swallow greater regulation if it helps to regain their place in society.

It shouldn’t be such a struggle. The financial services industry ploughs billions into the British economy every year and employs a vast workforce. Perhaps there is only one sure-fire way of lifting the animosity towards banks: give everybody a slice of one.

Such a plan would create a virtue from George Osborne’s current situation. The Chancellor is waiting to sell down the state’s shares in Royal Bank of Scotland and Lloyds when markets have turned around. At the same time, he is casting about for ways to reinvigorate the economy.

Imagine the impact of immediately distributing shares in RBS back to the people who own it. The 87% of the business controlled by the taxpayer is currently worth £10 billion, even after a 50% slide in the share price this year. Split between Britain’s 46 million adults, that is £220 each or enough for a cash-strapped couple with children to pay for Christmas comfortably. Because the Government bailed out two banks, Osborne has the opportunity to experiment. Why not hand over RBS and keep Lloyds in State ownership until it has been fully nursed back to health?

That way, City advisers win at least one set of transaction fees, and the Exchequer gets an injection of cash a few years down the line.

Giving a bank to the people that already own it is not a new idea. The Centre for Policy Studies, a think-tank chaired by Lord Saatchi, came up with the plan earlier this year. Nick Clegg latched onto it, even though it was quickly dismissed.

What has changed since then is the economy. Thanks to the eurozone crisis, neither Lloyds nor RBS are likely to be shipshape before 2014, meaning a flotation before the election the following year looks extremely unlikely. Bang goes one vote-winning strategy. Giving away one of the lenders, instead of waiting longer to sell it, could prove to be even more popular. The weakening economic outlook is hitting confidence hard. Today’s CBI survey shows that companies are thinking about cutting workforces, not adding to them. It’s bleak on the High Street too.

Free shares would act as a huge impetus to kick-start growth – just as the discounted privatisation of British Gas proved to be 25 years ago this week. And it would work equally for rich and poor. The poor would welcome it as an unexpected windfall, and would spend it instantly. For the rich, it wouldn’t make a huge difference to their lives or their share portfolios – they might as well offload it too.

Unlike Royal Mail, RBS doesn’t need a capital injection to get it back on its feet. It can realise plenty of cash from selling assets to shrink its balance sheet.

Of course, not everyone would sell. It would leave RBS with millions of small shareholders that would be costly to administer. Annual investor meetings would need to be held at Wembley Stadium.

However, it would also create a national champion owned by its account holders. How’s that for fostering customer loyalty? Building societies already manage. It would be very inclusive, very Big Society – a good way of getting RBS off the Treasury’s books, and for an industry to begin regaining some trust.”

Date Added: Monday 21st November 2011