Angry savers forcing sale of Northern Rock

Section:

By Iain Dey and Patrick Hennessy
The Telegraph, London
Sunday, September 16, 2007

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/money/main.jhtml;jsessionid=WRKLTFU5KMZUFQFIQ...

Northern Rock, the crisis-hit bank under siege from thousands of its customers, was preparing itself last night for a selloff, The Sunday Telegraph can reveal.

One plan being worked on by City bankers was to divide the company's L100 billion mortgage portfolio between the other major banks in what would amount to a private-sector rescue of the lender.

In scenes not experienced for decades, police were needed to keep the peace at branches across the country as increasingly angry and desperate investors rushed to withdraw their funds.

However, despite many queuing from before dawn, scores were sent away empty-handed when cashiers ran out of time to serve them.

The Northern Rock crisis sparked a wider political row as David Cameron, the Conservative Party leader, pinned the blame on Prime Minister Gordon Brown. Mr Cameron accused the prime minister of presiding over a "huge expansion of public and private debt" during his decade as chancellor.

Writing for The Sunday Telegraph, the Conservative leader declared: "Though the current crisis may have had its trigger in the United States, over the past decade the gun has been loaded at home."

Personal debt had trebled under Labour to L1.3 billion, Mr Cameron added, as he called on ministers to explain the "chain of events" that led up to the Bank of England's decision last week to prop up Northern Rock.

The bank siege became a virtual stampede, despite repeated assurances by Alistair Darling, the chancellor, that the lender remained solvent.

However, sources close to the company said that if customers continued to draw their deposits at the same alarming rate, Northern Rock would be forced to break up.

Government and Bank of England officials are understood to be preparing a public statement designed to reassure millions of customers across the banking sector that their savings were safe. Both are anxious to secure a "quick fix" of Northern Rock's woes before the crisis spreads.

One plan under discussion in Whitehall is a co-ordinated rescue of Northern Rock involving other banks and the Bank of England.

"If the run on deposits looks out of control, Northern Rock would effectively be nationalised and put into administration so it could be wound down," said an official.

A source close to Northern Rock said: "Things look really ugly. If the share price falls heavily on Monday, then a fast break-up and sale of the assets looks inevitable."

On Friday, following 10 days of discussions involving the chancellor, Mervyn King, the governor of the Bank of England, and Sir Callum McCarthy, the chairman of the Financial Services Authority, the Bank of England offered Northern Rock an emergency credit line.

The reputation of Mr King, the Bank of England's highly respected governor, has taken a battering over his handling of the crisis involving the country's fifth-largest mortgage lender.

"Mervyn was being too clever," said one of his officials. "If he had sounded a little less tough, banks might still be lending to each other."

A Whitehall source said: "The governor has handled this badly. He urgently needs to reassure savers."

Northern Rock's near collapse is the latest symptom of the squeeze in world financial markets, which began in the United States late last year when overstretched homeowners began to default on their mortgage payments.

The credit squeeze has made it difficult for Northern Rock to raise money to fund its business.

Although the Bank of England's deal ensures that Northern Rock has more than enough money to honour all of its commitments to savers and mortgage customers, its longer-term future remains in doubt.

"Queues outside our branches are not pretty viewing on TV," admitted Adam Applegarth, Northern Rock's chief executive. "Has our brand been damaged today? Well, of course it has."

He added: "It will be a long slog as an independent company to rebuild that. Our share price has come off 30 per cent. You have got to be more vulnerable [to a sale] if your share price has come down. It's up to the bidders to make a bid."

With frantic manoeuvring continuing in Whitehall and the City, police were called on to calm "boisterous" customers in numerous branches, including Sheffield, Manchester, Glasgow, and London.

At least L1 billion was withdrawn from the bank by worried savers on Friday -- 4 per cent of the bank's deposits. Branch staff said they were even busier yesterday.

It is understood that attempts by the Bank of England to find a single buyer for Northern Rock have failed. Instead, it is more likely to be sold off piece by piece with possible buyers including HSBC, Lloyds TSB, Barclays, Royal Bank of Scotland, and Halifax Bank of Scotland.

Merrill Lynch, the investment bank, is expected to oversee the auction, which could begin as early as next week.

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