Uneasy sits the crown: can King rally the Bank of old England?

As the Treasury Select Committee grilled senior Bank of England officials, bets were being taken on who would survive the Northern Rock landslide. Simon Evans reports
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In ancient Rome, enemies of the state were routinely thrown to the lions. Nowadays in London they are just made to sit before the Treasury Select Committee.

Last week it was the turn of Mervyn King, the Governor of the Bank of England, to undergo what is now becoming a ritual humiliation for high-flying bankers.

Flanked on one side by his deputy, a floundering Sir John Gieve, and on the other by his likely successor for the Bank's top job, Paul Tucker, King's crown slipped with a performance that was at times irascible and occasionally, in the words of the committee, "obfuscating".

Shock at the bailout of Northern Rock had the previous day turned to anger when King performed the most startling U-turn during his time at the helm of the Bank.

Following the lead of America's Federal Reserve and the European Central Bank, King presided over the injection of £10bn into the money markets – a week too late to save the run on Northern Rock.

The move came less than a week after he said that the Bank of England would not bail out a failing bank.

King cut an altogether less impressive figure entering Westminster, with an unfamiliar strained look drawn across his face. It was a display in stark contrast to the front-foot showings he normally offers.

His quarterly briefings in the more familiar surroundings of Threadneedle Street have become a model of assuredness, with the man from Wolverhampton exuding confidence with no short measure of humour.

He has enjoyed one of the best relationships a central banker could ever have with those money-makers in the Square Mile, while politicians down the road in Whitehall have often heaped praise on him for the judicious control of inflation through monetary medicine.

At the Labour Party conference, which begins today, Gordon Brown and his Chancellor Alistair Darling are likely to deliver resounding votes of confidence in King and his abilities. But as followers of even the lowliest football teams will tell you, votes of confidence tend to be short-lived.

For many, King's flip-flopping over the handling of the Northern Rock crisis has been inexcusable. The sight of disgruntled Labour Party members affected by the debacle venting their collective spleens is likely to make uncomfortable viewing for the Governor.

Back in the relative safety of the Square Mile, King's reputation has also clearly taken a dive.

Simon Ward, chief economist at New Star Asset Management, says: "I thought he gave a spirited defence at the committee but certainly King emerges from this with his lustre gone."

Spirited his defence may have been, but King now has a Herculean task to erase the images beamed into our homes of hundreds of people clambering to get their life savings from Northern Rock accounts, ahead of any collapse.

At the height of the panic, one could easily have been forgiven for mistaking queues in the leafy suburb of Kingston upon Thames for the streets of tinpot dictatorships where bank runs were once de rigueur.

Indeed, the pictures of panicked savers were believed so incendiary that senior figures at the BBC are thought to have met on Saturday night to discuss pulling them from our screens. They, of course, realised the futility of such a gesture.

At Thursday's committee hearing, a timeline emerged of who knew exactly what and when during the whole debacle, with warnings of a looming disaster first highlighted by Tucker, the Bank's markets director, as far back as the end of July.

However, the pivotal date in the whole scenario seems to be 14 August – the first day King and the Bank knew of the extent of the troubles specifically at Northern Rock – and just five days after the credit markets seized up. Despite continued press speculation and City rumours that Northern Rock had hit the buffers, it was another month before the wider world knew the seriousness of the company's plight.

"Legislation stopped us from doing our job," cried King as he came under a volley of questioning from the committee's chair, Labour's John McFall. "The system of dealing with banking insolvency is inadequate."

No kidding. But analysts believe that King and his cohorts should have had a better grasp on proceedings much earlier in the game.

Let's hope the commercial banks' monitoring systems are rather more robust than those of the Old Lady of Threadneedle Street. That the Bank's radar missed the gathering storm was one thing, but for many in the Square Mile, as well as senior managers at Northern Rock who are unsurprisingly seething at the Governor's delayed actions, the truly unforgivable move came with the volte-face of injecting £10bn worth of cash into the markets at improved terms, days after he said he wouldn't.

"We have balanced concerns about moral hazard against the concerns that arose from the beginning of this week about the strains on the banking system more generally," said King. "I think the real aim of trying to minimise moral hazard is not to provide liquidity at zero costs. We are not doing that."

But chatter in the City's bars in the wake of the U-turn suggests otherwise. City veteran Andy Stewart, one of the founders of the brokerage Collins Stewart and now the chief executive of Cenkos Securities, says: "I'm actually a bit of a fan of Mervyn King, but it's a scandal to bail out a bank like this.

"When I was a teenager you were always reminded, 'borrow long, lend short'. Northern Rock was doing the complete opposite so it's no surprise to me what happened."

Treasury Select Committee grillings are always pure theatre, and hot on the heels of recent hearings into private equity, the political capital to be gleaned out of landing that killer question has increased.

Expect similar fare when more bosses of the buyout world face the committee in the next few months.

Thursday's meeting was littered with some remarkable exchanges and some choice analogies, with McFall leading the charge. The former comprehensive school deputy headmaster, who clearly relishes the limelight that leadership of the committee affords him, questioned King on how we had reached a situation that was the "equivalent of shouting fire in a darkened cinema", while he mockingly asked the governor: "Are you your own man?"

Taking the lead from his Labour colleague, George Mudie, who offered an even more combative but somehow less convincing display, also sought to mock King.

"You were content to watch this impending disaster, this train running towards the buffers?" accused Mudie. To which King, barely able to hide his disgust, replied: "At that point there didn't seem much point in blowing up the train before it hit the buffers."

If King had a difficult time throughout the lengthy grilling, it was nothing in comparison to the tirade faced by Sir John Gieve, deputy governor of the Bank and, crucially, a non-executive member of the Financial Services Authority (FSA) board.

"So you were asleep when the mugging was taking place?" said McFall, questioning why Gieve had apparently remained in the dark about the impending crisis at Northern for so long.

"He was clearly the lightening rod for the committee and had to field those questions that really should be answered by the FSA," says Ward at New Star.

But committees have little to do with fairness, with Sir John's performance nothing short of lamentable.

With Sir John the clear loser, Tucker's stock rose once again. The former corporate financier, who served as principal private secretary to the former governor, Robin Leigh-Pemberton, didn't emerge totally unscathed but put in a strong enough performance to suggest that bookies up and down the land would be wise to slash the odds on him becoming governor at some point.

He might not have long to wait because in just a few weeks' time the decision as to who serves as governor from June next year will be made.

Although King has dodged questions on the matter in the past, there can have been little doubt in his mind that the job was his if he wanted it again. After the events of the past few weeks, that decision has been taken out of his hands.

On 9 October the City will glean further insights into how the Northern Rock episode unfolded from the regulator's perspective, when the FSA's chairman, Sir Callum McCarthy, and the recently appointed chief executive and former Credit Suisse banker, Hector Sants, face the wrath of McFall and the rest of the committee.

Sir Callum is sure to get a rough ride after being singled out last week by the committee's senior Conservative member, Michael Fallon, ahead of October's grilling. And with his five- year tenure at the regulator coming to an end next year, speculation has already turned to his possible replacement.

Sir James Crosby, the former chief executive of HBOS, has already emerged as potential front- runner to take over the post. Those in the Square Mile would certainly welcome the 51-year -old whom they regard as one of their own. Sir John has also been a non-executive board member at the regulator since 2004.

Mr Darling, who it was revealed on Friday will also present his version of events to the committee in October, is likely to be given a more comfortable ride. The extent to which he leaned on his tripartite partners to secure last week's bailout will be the key issue.

With the committee widening the scope of its investigation, many in the Square Mile and beyond would welcome a grilling for other parties embroiled in the saga – in particular those ratings agencies and City analysts that spectacularly failed in their expensive duties.

How the agencies once again proved so impotent in a crisis, together with an explanation from some of the City's highly paid analysts as to why they were extolling Northern's cheapness rather than the risks it posed, would be most interesting.

Amid the recriminations and accusations flying around in the wake of the crisis, it's easy to forget that Northern Rock's demise hasn't been problematic for all.

Lansdowne Partners, a hedge fund situated in Mayfair, is believed to have pocketed a very handsome sum short-selling shares in Northern Rock before news of the bailout surfaced.

If the doors at Threadneedle Street are soon closed to King, those altogether more sumptuous avenues of hedge fund row could prove an agreeable retreat.

Is there an institution brave enough to take on the crumbling Rock?

When the Bank of England chose to bail out Northern Rock, the clock began ticking to find a buyer for the ailing group.

"The rules are very clear," says Catriona Munro, a specialist in EU competition law at Maclay Murray & Spens. "Rescue aid must be granted at an interest rate comparable to those for loans to healthy firms and be reimbursed within a period of not more than six months. There's also the 'one time, last time' principle that no additional aid can be granted during the next 10 years."

Although it is still early days, the omens for a quick sale don't look good. Despite the company's share price tumbling, there seems to be a dearth of bargain hunters willing to take a punt.

"From the market's reaction this week, the queue of potential buyers has certainly got shorter and shor-ter," says Nic Clarke, banks analyst at Charles Stanley. "What you're seeing is banks looking to shore things up by hoarding capital to protect themselves rather than look to buy anyone else.

"The larger banks have not shown any interest at the low price [for Northern Rock shares], which is linked to the poor outlook for mortgage earnings in the coming year," he adds. "If you take on Northern Rock, you take on the refinancing of the wholesale exposure too. You can see why the queue has dried up."

According to Mike Trippitt, analyst at Oriel Securities, a bid will come, but credit markets will have to bounce back first. "Price is not the issue, psychology is," he says . "If we return to something like normality then interest will spike. Maybe Crédit Agricole or Santander could join in. But one thing is certain: 10 years after it converted [from a building society], life as a standalone business is over for Northern."

For the current management of Northern Rock, the future also looks bleak. Chief executive Adam Applegarth's days are numbered. The once-vocal chief executive has remained silent in the past few days, privately seething at the Governor's dramatic funding U-turn on Wednesday. But his chances of a quiet exit into the shadows now seem unlikely.

Led by the lawyer behind the Railtrack malfeasance case, 30 private shareholders are in the early throes of bringing a class action against Applegarth and other board members. Their claims hinge on the board's failure to make the extent of the bank's woes apparent on 9 August, when credit markets collapsed and the dangers for the bank became all to real.

Baillie Gifford, the fund manager that is estimated to have lost as much as £200m on the back of Northern Rock's failure, isn't thought to be considering litigation at present. But one City source said that similar experiences in the US could mean the Edinburgh-based manager might still weigh in with legal proceedings later on: "Frankly, if something emerges out of left field in the coming weeks, it would be irresponsible for an institutional investor like Baillie Gifford not to pursue legal recourse."

The bank's 6,200 staff members are also likely to face swingeing cuts, with north-east England, where the majority of the bank's branches are located, bearing the brunt of any closures and redundancies.

Further reading: Former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan's new book, 'The Age of Turbulence: Adventures in a New World'

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