The future is Brown

Last updated 09:39 14/10/2008

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Every crisis throws up unlikely heroes - and the credit crunch might have produced the most unexpected one of the lot.

If the European-led moves to stabilise the banking sector do work, then the name Gordon Brown should go down in history as possibly saving the world from a total meltdown of the whole financial system.

Brown, the dark shadow who followed the golden Tony Blair for years has been a most unpopular British Prime Minister. And in all probability he will still get thrown out in the next election because the great British unwashed electorate won't appreciate what he has done.

But the reality is he has shown a capacity for clear thinking and articulation that left US Treasury secretary "sheriff" Hank Paulson in the shade.

Paulson's disastrous decision to let Lehman Brothers go under has taken the world to the brink. Brown and Europe might just have come up with a rescue solution. Paulson's name and efforts will go down in history in the worst possible way. Brown should forever be remembered favourably.

And the plan is simple enough really: put guarantees in place and recapitalise banks that have had their balance sheets shredded by the crisis.

I do believe that hopefully now the worst is over.

This doesn't mean we won't still have a big global recession - because we will. But hopefully we are about to avert a 1930s-style depression that had become an ever more real possibility.

Mark this point in history down as the time the US ceased to be the world leader. Europe will take confidence from the fact that it found its own solution while the Americans were still sinking in a problem they caused. Other countries, notably those in Asia, will see that America went missing when the big decisions needed to be made. It is a seismic shift.

Closer to home the impact is going to be with us for some time as well - notably in the form of the blanket guarantee put on depositors' funds.

As the dust settles on the implementation of the two-year scheme, a few things become clearer in the mind.

The fact that the big banks will totally pay for this is an obvious anomaly that will cause problems. But, remember, one way or another it will be the customers who pay for it. The banks will work out a way of that.

Newspaper headlines today were suggesting this scheme is a "free lunch" for finance companies, since they don't pay for the guarantee and they will then be able to grab market share from the banks by offering higher interest rates.

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I don't think it will be that simple. The reputational damage to the title "finance company" has been such that most people are going to think twice about going down that route again.

Also, there seems to be some fanciful thinking that folk will simply go to the Reserve Bank and say: "Can I have a guarantee, please" and it will be given - no questions asked.

Not so. Anybody who wants one of these guarantees will have to go through all the hoops the RBNZ puts in front of them. They will be subjected to constant scrutiny. If the RBNZ wants some information, they will have to give that information - or lose the guarantee. There really is NO SUCH THING as a free lunch.

The compliance costs of maintaining a guarantee will put new financial pressures on the finance companies. One of the reasons why finance companies have been able to offer higher interest rates is that they don't have the same regulatory costs the banks have. Well, anybody wanting a guarantee will face exactly the same costs as a bank now. And with their generally smaller size the finance firms may find that harder to handle.

The result will be that the finance companies simply won't be able to offer much higher interest rates than the banks - that particular avenue of advantage will be closed.

Remember also that this guarantee is only for two years. Deposits with finance companies are often locked up for at least that term. Would you now tie some money up with a finance firm for three years knowing the guarantee could be pulled in two?

I suspect that some of the bigger finance firms - Marac and South Canterbury Finance are two names that come to mind - might do quite well out of this. But those two in particular do deserve great credit for the way they have got out and raised capital over the past months, ensuring they have the liquidity to cope.

But as for tiny little finance houses mushrooming into big businesses under cover of a guarantee? No. It won't happen.

One of the most intriguing stories in this will be what happens to the halfway house finance companies - that group that aren't in receivership, but have breached their trust deeds.

This group, which includes Hanover, Strategic and Dorchester among others, are all trying to work out moratorium schemes to repay investors over a period of time.

Potentially, this guarantee does offer these companies a lifeline. But, to be honest, if I was an investor with any of those companies, I would not be getting my hopes up that my money is about to get guaranteed.

First, those companies would have to resolve the breaches of their trust deeds but then - and most crucially - they would have to convince the RBNZ to give them the guarantee.

Now if any or all of those companies can recapitalise themselves thoroughly they might get a guarantee. But, equally, if they were able to do that then they would be able to save themselves with or without a guarantee.

The reality is that the sheer time frame that most of these companies are talking about for repayment - it is over two years - will rule them out of getting a guarantee in the first place.

And with every moment that passes, the property market that these companies revolve around gets worse and worse.

So, sorry to say this investors, I don't believe that one of those companies will be able to get a guarantee - unless they find some willing benefactor prepared to put up very large sums of money indeed.

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