The shareholder lawsuit against the directors who were on the bridge when the Titanic that was Royal Bank of Scotland crashed into the iceberg of the credit crunch may be the last chance for those hoping for some form of justice, or at least retribution. The case being brought against the bank and its disgraced former board – including pariah-in-chief Fred Goodwin and Sir Tom McKillop, who was at least in theory supposed to be keeping an eye on him – centres on the £12bn rights issue launched in June 2008.
Investors weren't pleased. Mr Goodwin had two months previously denied any need for fresh capital. But they dutifully stumped up 200p a share, only for the bank to go cap-in-hand to the taxpayer for another £20bn to prevent it from collapse six months later. You can hardly blame investors for thinking they smell a rat.
The trouble is, shareholder lawsuits have a mixed record, to say the least. Where this one is different is that it seems to have attracted the support of some proper institutions, as opposed to being backed by either whinging hedge funds who have got their fingers caught in a door or the sort of gamblers who throw the dice in the fag-end of the AIM and complain when they get burnt. And it might even get to court. It is usually sound practice when it comes to legal cases to target institutions rather than individuals because the former have money and the latter do not.
But as the TUC has argued, the remuneration of the modern corporate executive makes them look like mini corporations in their own right. Mr Goodwin and some of his colleagues have sufficient wealth to make it worth suing them. They may actually, financially, be in better shape than their old employer.
Those directors are likely to fight until the bitter end to ensure that it stays that way and their defence tactics will be fascinating to watch. Will they rely on the argument that there was no way the credit crunch and the financial crisis that followed could have been foreseen? Or will they try another tactic, such as, perhaps, shifting some of the blame to their regulator? Or even to the Government of the time?
If the directors have to fight, then so does RBS, which simply can't afford to take another substantial financial hit after the payment-protection insurance debacle. So suddenly the new-look RBS finds itself on the same side as the directors who brought it down.
There are good reasons for hoping that this one goes all the way. There are still some hard lessons that need to be learnt from the collapse of RBS and there are doubtless still some dirty little secrets that need airing. Now we stand a chance of hearing about them. For that reason alone, the disgruntled shareholders are on the side of the angels.Reuse content