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The ravings of an individual, UK voter frustrated with our politicians

Posts Tagged ‘economy

Have the bank directors failed in their fiduciary duties?

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Whilst doing my rounds today, I came across this article which points out that all directors have a legal duty of care or, if you prefer, a fiduciary duty. The author then asks why it is, that bank directors have been allowed to resign, rather than be sacked, given the government are suggesting that these bank directors have failed? It is a compelling argument.

Theoretically at least, if any director failed in their fiduciary duty, acted recklessly or without due care then, not only could they be sacked, but they could find themselves liable to a civil action. That notwithstanding, it is clear to me, that if ‘trust and confidence’ is an integral part of a fiduciary’s duty, then there has been a failure.

I cannot argue with the sentiment, so lets be clear, one government minister after the other has been heard to repeat the term used by Gordon Brown, that there must be “no reward for failure“.  Similarly, there must be no amnesty for anyone that has failed in their fiduciary duty or that has acted recklessly or without due care.  The author goes on to say;

These individuals have either failed or they have not, ministers must be careful in making damning statements, yet failing to back them up with appropriate action.

Surely government ministers understand that if they are going to step up the rhetoric, then they need to follow these statements with firm action? Anything less would be unacceptable to the general public who are now massive stakeholders in these banks. Moreover, if I were a former bank director, I would welcome the opportunity to clear my name, assuming of course, that I had a defence to the charge.  The article is pretty well summed up as follows;

I am not qualified legally or otherwise to determine whether or not any individual director has failed in their fiduciary duty. Therefore I am not suggesting anyone (bankers or otherwise) has acted improperly, I am relying only on the governments own words, that there should be no reward for failure, which implies that there has indeed been a failure. However, in the “court of public opinion” I would like to state for the record, that I believe there is merit, perhaps even a duty, for the government to seek legal advice on this matter, because they, as a majority shareholder in these banks, have their own fiduciary duty to the shareholders, you and me!

I agree! So lets see some action from government ministers instead of hot air.

RBS Pension scandal or attempt to divert attention

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Perhaps it is the cynical side of me, but, I can’t help wondering whether the release of Sir Fred Goodwin’s pension entitlement is a bit too convenient. Bear with me if you will.

Sir Fred has complained that his pension arrangements have been made public. Now lets face it, given the scale of the losses at RBS, it is not inconceivable that this particular obligation could have been ‘lost’ in the malaise, but it wasn’t. Why is that? At time of public anger over bankers, a nice juicy pension to a former banker was bound to get the blood pressure rising, with the masses venting their anger at the recipient. Yes, yes, the government must have known about it, but they have got away with other issues in relation to due diligence, so why not this. Added to which, the government will have known that the public, for the most part, would target the recipient not them. Then there is media commentators, the vast majority of whom have fallen for it, stating that the if the government did know and released the details then, it must have been an own goal. But was it?

Take a look at the headlines and you can get a feel for what has captured the public imagination. Not the fact that RBS is about to receive another £13bn of taxpayers money (on top of £20bn last year);  not the fact that a bank that is 70% owned by the tax payer has just announced losses of £24bn, 70% of which is ours; not the fact that we, the taxpayer, are about to underwrite £325bn of ‘toxic assets’ in return for a premium of just £6.5bn; and not the fact that our ownership of this company is now likely to rise to 84% in economic terms, if not voting shares (75%).

You would expect something of this magnitude to lead the news stories, but is has not, instead, in a classic New Labour ‘smoke & mirrors’ game designed to dupe the public, our attention is turned to Sir Fred Goodwin and his obscene pension. The bailout of the banks, the underwriting of inter-bank loans and the public guarantees on toxic assets have all but bankrupted this country and here we are kicking up a big fuss about Sir Fred’s pension arrangements. Instead of Gordon Brown having to defend the fact that he has just spent way in excess of our expected tax receipts for this year, he could go on television and say that the government were considering legal action to challenge Sir Fred’s pension entitlement, in other words, he (Gordon Brown) could appear to be in tune with the public mood.

Please people, stop falling for these classic New Labour, cynical moves to wrongfoot the public, they are laughing at us and in a way, we deserve it. As for the political commentators that have fallen for this trick, they should hang there heads in shame. Before anyone accuses me of supporting Sir Fred’s pension arrangements, I will state for the record that I firmly do not, I just believe that this government has used the pension to divert our attention and boy, has it worked!

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27 February, 2009 at 3:59 pm

Mortgage assistance for struggling homeowners

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Although the government has yet to provide the ‘small print’ for their help for struggling homeowners, some details have emerged. According to the government, the following mortgage providers have agreed to support their plan, HBOS, Nationwide, Abbey, Lloyds TSB, Northern Rock, Barclays, RBS and HSBC. These companies account for some 70% of the domestic mortgage market.

Currently, people who are on a Job Seekers Allowance, or income support, can apply for taxpayers money to help repay the interest on their mortgages. Previously, the government stated that the maximum value of the mortgage where interest would be paid was going up from £100k, to £175k, this will now be £200k. Those claiming JSA will see this support limited to two years and borrowers that have a working spouse or partner, or savings of over £16,000 will not qualify for this support.

The new plan sees many of the major mortgage companies agreeing to extend the minimum period before they action repossession proceedings from around 3 months to 6 months. This is fairly significant, but I will come back to this point later. Another part of the plan, which currently lacks any detail is support for people that have suffered a significant loss of income, perhaps a loss of overtime, one partner having been made redundant, or the borrower having to accept a lower paid job. Here, borrowers with mortgages of £400,000 or less, will be able to defer interest payments, which will then be added to the capital. The Treasury will then underwrite the additonal ‘risk’ normally borne by the lenders. This programme is designed to complement the existing mortgage support provided to those on income support or a Job Seekers Allowance.

However laudable the scheme, there is a very limited benefit to those that have taken out some type of ‘secured’ loan and subsequently default. This is because, not surprisingly, the government are not prepared to underwrite secured loans. The problem here is where a borrower has defaulted on a loan that is secured against their property, the lender can apply to the court to have the property sold, in order that they can recover their money. Now, many people have taken out these types of loans, rather than re-mortgaging their properties, to fund lifestyle purchases, extensions, cars and so on. Therefore, irrespective of the good intent of the mortgage companies or the government, their plans are at risk by the actions of any third party with a second charge. But there is something else that I believe is far more scandalous and that is the way lenders who have provided unsecured loans can seek to get a charge on a borrowers property, let me explain.

The borrower takes out an unsecured loan from a credit card company and subsequently default. If the card company believes that it will cost more to service or collect the debt than it is worth, they will often sell on the debt to a specialist company than collects debts. These organisations often pay only 10-15% of the face value and may purchase hundreds of millions of pounds worth of bad debt. They then employ very aggressive tactics to collect the money. If these don’t work and the debtor is a homeowner, the debt collectors invariably apply to the court to have the debt secured against the property and in most cases, this application is granted. Now the debtor will have the loan and any associated collection, legal and court costs added to the original debt.

The courts are complicit in this whole process, given some debt companies literally ‘book’ a court for half a day to process these applications. What must be particularly galling for the borrowers, is that the costs associated with this application can add substantially to the original debt, in addition to which, the courts take no account of the fact that the original debt was unsecured and therefore, the interest rate that was charged at the outset would have reflected the lenders additional risk. Having successfully managed to secure the debt, these debt companies will now typically ratchet up the pressure on the debtor, often getting them to agree amounts that they simply cannot afford, which is, arguably what the debt company wants. Because once there is a default, the debt company can apply to the court to have the property sold and that is invariably what they do.

Now the government cannot deny knowledge of this common practice, nor the fact that an obscure 1925 law is being used to achieve the objective of the debt management companies. Gordon Brown was asked about this very issue during his monthly meeting with the press and chose to ignore it, by repeating what the government were doing to help mortgage holders rather tha the legitimate issue that was raised. Yet, for a man that likes to legislate for anything and everything, he did not grasp the nettle and suggest that the government will look to repeal the legislation being exploited by these debt companies.

Now don’t get me wrong. Everyone must be responsible for their own actions and I do not believe in government intervention with taxpayers money, other than what is strictly necessary. But there is a need to distinguish between those that can’t and those that won’t pay. I have no sympathy for the latter. However, those that can’t pay should be treated sympathetically, they should not for example, have to endure the massive hike in the debt as a direct consequence of these debt companies taking completely unecessary legal action to gain security for the loan and/or a forced sale. The courts must be far more sympathetic to the borrower, for example, asking these companies what they expect to achieve by gaining security for what was originally an unsecured debt. Lets face it, unless the debt company intends to force a sale, or use the security as additional leverage, there is no point. No court should allow companies that have purchased unsecured debt, at 10-15% of its face value, to rack up the charges and costs and then secure the debt. Similarly, the government must urgently repeal the law that allows them to make this application, particularly in light of the assistance they are claiming to offer borrowers to minimise the risk of them losing their homes.

The bottom line, is that unless the government deals with this issue, then it can be reasonable argued that they are not serious about trying to keep people in their homes. Because someone that has taken out, for example, a credit card on an unsecured loan basis, could very quickly and quite easily find that they could be losing their home at the instigation of a debt purchasing company that has managed to secure the loan and by default, prevent the borrower from gaining any government support or assistance. These debt purchasing companies are making massive returns on their original investment and they are very effectively exploiting legal loopholes to put people out of their homes in order that they can get a quick return, in what is supposed to be contrary to the government stated goals. The debt purchasing companies are not acting responsibly and need to be tackled. Why, therefore is this government doing nothing to put a stop to it?

The folly of a reduction in VAT

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Suggestions by so called experts and hints by Gordon Brown that the proposed tax reductions will take the form of a VAT reduction will be a complete waste of time. Whilst I accept that Gordon Brown may want to adopt his usual smoke and mirrors approach to how much a tax cut is worth, no-one will believe him, with some justification. A cut in VAT is a reduction in a consumption tax, this will not make people feel as if they have more money in their pocket, instead, they will just feel that their money goes a little further on some vatable items, which excludes groceries, utility bills etc.

By way of an example, a £50 item with VAT charged at 12.5% instead of the current 17.5% would see a reduction of just £2.50, assuming that retailers and traders do not use the opportunity to shore up their own margins. Would this be enough to get people into the high streets spending their money, I think not? Retailers are giving far more away in so called special offers. But from Gordon Brown’s perspective, he can hail it as a massive giveaway, given he is prone to use an over simplistic, almost child-like set of sums, that allows him to maximise the value of a tax breaks, even in the full knowledge that the impact on government finances would be a fraction of the number made public. We have seen this time and again in his budget speeches, anyone remember the 10p tax debacle?

If any package is going to work, then the public need to know that they have more money in their pocket, it would be a hard sell in the current climate to convince people that their money will simply go further. In addition, this is one of those occasions when Gordon Brown must not try and bulls**t the public, nor should be tinker with taxes, it needs to be a bold and dramatic cut in direct taxation, something in the order of a 5% reduction in direct taxes. Anything less is doomed to failure and as anyone with half an ounce of commonsense knows, a delay in a period of such a significant loss of confidence and economic downturn will lead to a prolonged recession or require a much larger cut in the future.

Much is being said about how to pay for the tax cuts. Well there are any number of government projects and initiatives that could be curtailed or cancelled which need not affect education or health services, a good start would be to look at the vast sums being spent on information technology projects, with highly questionable returns. That notwithstanding, the government has no choice, they must give the economy a boost, irrespective of what it does to the short-term finances of this country, one thing is for sure, other developed countries will, in spite of Gordon Brown’s suggestions, not because of them.

However, the government must not stop at personal taxation, they also need to look carefully at small business. This sector has been severely affected by the downturn, in terms of less business, slower payers and bad debt provisions. Given the SME sector employs some 12.5m people, it is self-evident that many will be struggling given the tax on employment (NI) and tax on business (business rates) that the government use to punish enterprise. They will need a package of measures which includes, but should not be limited to, a reduction in business rates and the reversal of employers NI contributions for those that employ 10 people or less. Given many will struggle to make a profit, there is little point, at this stage, in reducing corporation tax, although is has to be said that Brown’s recent increases in corporation tax for small business, does not encourage entrepreneurship, so much for being business friendly.

David Cameron is due to provide his suggestions for tax cuts today, but given he is not in government, I doubt that will make much difference to our everyday lives.

Bradford & Bingley nationalisation, is it a good deal?

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As I have said, not for the first time, I am no financial expert, but I am a little confused about the ‘part nationalisation’and ‘part sell-off’ of the Bradford & Bingley deal. I accept that there is probably still more detail to come about, but from the little that is available, I find myself wondering, whether the government, on behalf of the hard-pressed taxpayers of this country, worked out a good deal.

In the past, building societies received deposits, in order that they could then use that money to offer mortgages and loans to others. The saver would receive interest on their money, the mortgage payer would pay interest on their borrowings and the building society would take a commission in return for the introduction and managing of the arrangement. Although this model has been turned on its head, with the wholesale trading of these mortgages, the principle should still be sound.

Therefore, if the government have taken on all of the mortgage debt of the Bradford & Bingley, estimated to be some £50bn, why not retain the deposits as well? Instead, they “sell”, the ambitious Spanish conglomerate, Santander, some £20bn of saver deposits (2.7 million people), for the miserly some of £612m. How can this be a good deal for the taxpayer? How can the government be so sure that the savers interests are protected, given we don’t really know that much about Santander. In fact, if the government were responsible for the sale of these customer deposits and something were to happen to Santander, would the government be culpable or liable, given it was they who negotiated the deal?

This particular arrangement can’t be good for the employees either, because Bradford & Bingley employed some 3,000 people and operated 197 branches. Does anyone imagine that a foreign owned bank, will give a toss about these employees? No, from what I can see, the UK government has passed over the profitable side of Bradford & Bingley to the Spanish owned bank ‘Abbey’, whilst leaving the British taxpayer exposed with just the bad mortgage debt. What was the point in getting rid of depositors money which has traditionally been used to offset mortgages? Looks like a very poorly thought out deal to me and somebody needs to explain why? Santander must be rubbing their hands with glee at the at the apparent naivety of the UK government.

I would not normally be a supporter of nationalisation, although in this case, as in the case of Northern Rock, there was probably no palatable alternative. However, I do believe that the government is responsible for driving home a decent deal for the taxpayers, they have a duty of care to the public purse and a responsibility to the taxpayer. No matter how urgent the problem, they should not lose sight of this. Yet here, from what I can see and perhaps against the views of many other observers, I fail to see how anyone, other than Santander would be considered to a be a winner.

HSBC increases mortgage rates in the UK

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HSBC have announced an increase in their mortgage rates to borrowers which will affect hundreds of thousands of borrowers. Now, whilst I accept that the inter bank lending rate has risen and that the banks have losses to contend with, this should be weighted against the fact that the same people that have mortgages, the tax payer, are currently accepting the increased risk brought about by the incompetence of the banks.

The Bank of England has advanced £billions of tax payers money to help prop the banks, this is not a risk free strategy and the evidence suggests that it hasn’t worked anyway. But there needs to be some form of quid pro quo, if the Bank of England is advancing the bank’s our money, then there needs to be a cap on the level of mortgage increases levied by these banks. Mortgage rate increases should be commensurate with need not greed. The simply can’t have it both ways. I would hope that the Bank of England and/or the government have sought some time of assurance from the bank’s that they won’t shaft mortgage payers in order to have a quick fix for their profits. Based on experience, I suspect this has not happened, but rest assured, a more savvy public will be watching and waiting.

Tax payer owned (not government owned as is often the way it is described), Northern Rock has indicated that it may well follow suit. Northern Rock should be setting an example for other lenders, no playing a game of me too.

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25 September, 2008 at 3:42 pm

Gordon Brown criticises companies for off-balance sheet activities

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What a hypocrite Gordon Brown is, this man lauded for his so called economic competence. In an in interview with Sky News, Gordon Brown criticises companies for running “large off-balance activities”. He then goes on to say, “We cannot excuse the irresponsibility that took place in a number of institutions. And, you guessed it, he did this with a straight face and no sense of irony.

So, this is the same man, that to be certain that he did not break his own golden rules, ensured that the cost of the Private Finance Initiative’s (PFI’s), were not included on the government’s own books. These are calculated to cost the tax payer some £172bn between now and 2032. This is the same man that forked out £110bn of tax payers money in loans and guarantees for Northern Rock, once again, ensuring that it was not included on the government’s balance sheet.

Then there is a further £1.7bn that the government must pay for Metronet’s debts, this figure is also excluded from the governments balance sheet. There is also a further, estimated £790bn in government pension deficits, this is another liability that is excluded from the government;s balance sheet. Now I accept that this may be ‘legal’ but it is morally wrong and serves only to deceive us all into a false sense of security. Some would argue that the game that these large companies and institutions alluded to in Gordon Brown’s interview did nothing more than he has.

Now, Gordon Brown has says that “It’s got to be cleaned up and its got to be cleaned up quickly.” I would hope, that when he is considering these words, he will consider his own actions, because their are many in this country that would consider his own actions as “irresponsible” and “inexcusable”. Enough said!

 

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Gordon Browns own words come back to haunt him

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Over at political website Power to the People there has been analysis of some of the statements made by Gordon Brown in Labour Party Conference speeches or, as Chancellor in his budget address. Oh how, in the current climate, these words are coming back to haunt him.

Specifically, Gordon Brown, promised there would be no return to “Boom and Bust” and that he would not permit “instability, speculation or negative equity” in the property market whilst he was in charge of the UK economy. That notwithstanding, he has of course, also claimed credit for our economic growth, which I guess he can, but of course, his flawed, naive strategy allowed this to be achieved “on tick”. Surely, even a basic understanding of economics would have made clear, even to a “prudent” chancellor, that this boom would have to end (“bust”) and then, when the dust had settled, we would all be expected to repay our debts.

Gordon Brown may be prime minister now, but he cannot simply wipe away his 10 years as chancellor, during which he presided over a consumer boom financed on credit as well as a massive spending spree by the government, much of which was poorly invested. Today the Daily Mail suggested that there should be an end to Labour Party in fighting, to allow Gordon Brown to get on with the job of getting the UK economy back on track. Now here’s the thing, if Gordon Brown is so deluded, so removed from the real world that he cannot see where his policies have added to and fueled the current economic situation we are facing, how on earth can we trust him to do what is right for this country now? Maybe the tabloids are concerned that they, almost without exception, were also the very people that lauded Gordon Brown as a prudent and wise chancellor?

 

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Federal Reserve Bank step in to help insurance firm AIG

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The world must welcome the news that the Federal Reserve Bank has stepped in to offer AIG, the American insurance giant with a bridging loan of $85bn. Although many pundits urged the fed not to intervene, there were just as many that were in support of such a move. The reality is, the Fed had little choice, given the ramifications of a failure of AIG could not be measured, but would have undoubtedly been far more significant than the failure of Lehman Brothers.

“It’s not just the failure of one company,” said Julie Grandstaff, vice president and managing director of StanCorp Investment Advisers. “It’s the ripple effect of the disappearance of counterparties” that was spurring urgent efforts to bolster AIG.

AIG’s difficulties have been exacerbated by a fall in its share price of some 60% and a downgrade of its financial standing by three levels to A- by Standard & Poor, making it more difficult and expensive to raise funds. Too many downgrades could trigger events requiring AIG to post billions in collateral to its credit default swap counter-parties. These ‘swaps’ are essentially insurance coverage to protect investors against defaulting bonds or debt. These products, often linked to the US real estate market, are at the heart of the current banking crisis and have led to massive write-downs of assets around the world.

AIG’s problems actually started earlier in the year after their auditors, Price Waterhouse claimed that AIG had material weakness in its internal controls over financial reporting and oversight. This type of qualification for any business is quite serious, but for the business such as AIG, it was bound to lead to some fall out, indeed, its shares fell some 10% on a single day in February following this news.

With one trillion dollars in assets and tentacles in many markets the failure of AIG would have affected many, many more companies, given it is not just an insurer, but a major player in the Credit Default Swap market. In the end the Fed could not stand by and do nothing.

Once the financial markets settle down, there is a good case for looking at how such major companies became engaged in such a risky strategy and who benefited, in what appears to smack of short-termism. There may even be a case to answered by the directors of some of the companies that have been affected, either way, there is certainly a case for more regulation and given American tax payers are expected to take up the risk, it is only right that they should seek assurances in terms of the way these types of companies trade in the future.

E.On UK energy company brag about making more money

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What a complete idiot executive director of E.On, Mark Owen-Lloyd is. At a time when the government is under increasing pressure to apply a windfall tax on energy companies, he brags that a harsh winter will “make us more money”. Obvious yes, but not a very bright thing to say in the current circumstances and it must leave the public questioning the quality of the senior team at E.On. It may have been a quip, but it was idiotic and insensitive, however it was intended to be received.

Perhaps the shareholders of E.On should be reminded, that at a time when raw material prices are rising and therefore the retail prices, additional margins are not because the board are business gurus, it is because even if the margins were maintained at the same percentages as before (and that is questionable), because of the higher revenues, their profits would increase incrementally. So, even if their directors are not as bright as their profits, they would still make more money. So guys, get off your high horse, before you find the public really do start to hit back.

It is ironic and possibly symptomatic, that this idiot felt comfortable making this cheap comment at an Ofgem winter outlook seminar. Ofgem are the very people that should be implementing controls to prevent the energy companies from abusing their domonat positions to make higher profits. Yet, E.On, in the form of Mark Owen-Lloyd, had no concerns in making his comment in front of Ofgem. What does that tell us?

This should really place the spotlight on Ofgem. Either they are ineffectual as a regulator, or they have insufficient powers to take any action. If it is the former, they must buck up their ideas, or head home and soon. If it is the latter, then the government must rush through emergency legislation to beef up their powers, it is likely they will get all party support.

Ofgem needs to ensure that the six principal energy companies do not profiteer from their dominance of the UK energy market. Ofgem should place caps on the energy company prices charged to Uk customers to prevent them from abusing their dominant positions. Why is it for example, that Ofcom in the telecomminications sector, have considerably more success at preventing abuse of dominance than Ofgem?

There are 5m people on prepay meters, there is no justifiable reason why the people using these meters should be charged higher tariffs. The energy companies should be required to bring prepay tariffs in line with their best tariffs. This has to be preferable to the government doling out taxpayers money to assist those in fuel poverty and in turn further boosting the profits of these energy companies.

The government are due to announce that they and the energy companies are going to increase the amount of money invested in improving home energy efficiency for the less well off. Commendable, but not if the rest of us have to pay it in the form of higher bills, because lets face it, we are all under pressure with higher bills, not just those in fuel poverty. In addition, the government must come clean and tell us if they have done a deal whereby the energy companies have agreed to increase their spend on this initiative, but against the backdrop of a secret deal with the government, allowing them to increase customers bills to cover their costs. That would not be a success, it would be a failure.

Given the government is also profiting out of people’s misery, they should be announcing new money, not repeating previous pledges, they can start by returning the £250m they withdrew from the Warm Front project.  We shall be watching very closely at what the government does, how the energy companies are responding and specifically whether or not Ofgem do their job.

I do not agree with a windfall tax on energy companies profits, but I certainly do believe that Ofgem should be ensuring that they do not profit out of the misery of the majority, if they cannot do this simple thing, then the government must replace the Ofgem team immediately.