James Moore: Property market gloom returns, and that may be a headache for Lloyds

Bankers think of themselves and their own bonuses first, second and third

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Oh dear. It's time to worry about house prices again with another set of nasty numbers from Halifax.

The year-on-year figures (the best ones to look at) from both Halifax and rival Nationwide together show a fall across the UK of about 2 per cent. And it's getting worse.

"Prices are going to stagnate," Halifax declared, crossing its fingers because it is in trouble if they don't. The health of its parent, Lloyds Banking Group, is at stake. It's already been bailed out by the taxpayer once, sorry, twice. A house price crash could lead to another.

A realistic possibility?

George Buckley, Deutsche Bank's chief economist, says UK prices are about 40 per cent higher than in the US, where a crash has happened. That's probably too much to be accounted for by factors such as our smaller size and lack of space.

And yet affordability is now about where it should be when compared to long-term trends. Phew. You're OK, Lloyds. The correction that has to come to the market will be soft, right?

Not so fast. Here's the problem. House prices are affordable now largely because base rates are so low, making mortgages very cheap. What if that changes? Suddenly things could get unpleasant very quickly. It can't be a lot of fun working at the Bank of England right now, where they get very worried about this sort of thing and are probably well aware that the price of raising rates to counter any surge in inflation would be to tip our economy into the void.

The one anomaly is London, where prices are still merrily rising, thanks to an influx of foreign money from people who see Sterling and property denominated in it as an attractive place to be.

That could change very quickly if the Eurozone starts to get frothy again or something else makes our currency start to look expensive.

A crash remains unlikely. There are quite a few people who'd like to buy but can't, simply because they can't get a mortgage. But Lloyds' chief executive Antonio Horta-Osorio won't be sleeping too easily.

More than this is needed to repair bank damage

How Barclays executives must be cheering Britain's Olympic medallists. The rosy glow created by their success will (they hope) calm some of the choppy waters surrounding the bank and draw at least some of the venom from the stings of its critics.

Not to mention keeping the bank's latest little problem (an investigation into finance director Chris Lucas over commission disclosures related to its Middle Eastern rescue) out of the headlines.

Time for some more soothing balm then? The bank might follow HSBC down the route of requiring its bankers to lock up most (or all) of their bonuses in shares that aren't released until they leave.

Theoretically, this is supposed to ensure that they don't take silly risks that threaten the bank's future. Realistically, they'll do what they've always done. They'll think of themselves and their own bonuses first, second and third. And they'll take whatever risks they can get away with to fatten them because even if the reward is deferred, it'll be worth it in the end. Of course, the deferral scheme is just an idea, and there'll be more of these filtering out over the next few months to show Barclays is thinking jolly hard about its future conduct in the wake of the Libor interest rate fixing scandal.

HSBC, of course, has just 'fessed up to merrily pumping dirty money around the world. Tweaking things around the edges is all very well, but the problem with Barclays and the banking industry in general is that a depraved culture has been allowed to take root in the parts that make the most money, but which can also do the most damage.

It will take more than some fiddling around the edges of bonus structures (that remain obscenely bloated) together with a carefully co-ordinated PR campaign to deal with that.

Can HMV's would-be savour carry it off?

It looks like the first job facing Trevor Moore, the man HMV hopes will be its saviour, will be finding a new finance chief. The company yesterday confirmed David Wolffe was following former CEO Simon Fox out of the creaking door of the creaking entertainment retailer.

Both these men had glittering CVs – Mr Fox started his career at a bank but went on to do some impressive things in retail (including setting up Office World) after spending time at Boston Consulting, which helped to train the likes of, erm, Benjamin Netanyahu, Mitt Romney and wonga.com backer Adam Beecroft.

Mr Wolffe is also connected to Mr Romney: he did a stint at the latter's old firm, Bain, after which he rose rapidly through the ranks of the broadcasting industry including stints at the BBC and ITV.

And their biggest achievement at HMV? They kept it on the edge of a precipice rather than seeing it fall off. Well done, lads.

Mr Moore is being touted as a "turnaround specialist". He too has a glittering CV, and gained the sobriquet after his stint at camera retailer Jessop's, which had been taken over by its main bank (HSBC) after a spectacular decline brought about by impact of the internet. A bit like HMV (although the banks haven't called in their loans just yet).

So where's Jessops now? Well it's still trading but profits are proving hard to find and its long-term future is open to question. Jessops was saved from going over the cliff, but it is still on the edge and only a couple of paces away from where HMV stands now. If Mr Moore can get HMV to the same place, it'll be quite an improvement. But a real, and sustainable turnaround? That appears to be as elusive at HMV the current climate as it does at Jessop's.