Jim Armitage: RBS looks set to spoil Osborne's claim that he has fixed banking mess

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Outlook Temasek is clearly a beast with some appetite for the UK. Little surprise, then, that the Singapore sovereign wealth fund has become George Osborne's best new buddy. Not only did it take up the biggest slice of Lloyds' placing this week, but it appears the Treasury/UK Financial Investments has high hopes it will take a bigger bite with the next round of the sales process, probably next March.

This all plays well for the Chancellor, who can boast to the public that one of the world's biggest sovereign wealth funds is putting billions of pounds in long-term bets on the future of the British economy (hence the Treasury leaks about Temasek snapping up about 0.5 per cent of Lloyds in this week's placing.)

With Temasek bagged as a likely keystone investor in the next sale, current thinking has it that the stage two placing will be a lot bigger than the £3.3bn done this week. It's possible we could be looking at double that figure.

However, retail punters wanting some of the action should not get too excited yet.

Those in the know say the thinking is that the March(ish) sale will again be all to institutions, taking advantage of the continued high demand, particularly from US investors who ditched European banking stocks after the financial crisis.

With Lloyds' shares in effect being a bet on the UK economy, once again Mr Osborne will be able to spin the tale that global fund managers like Britain's economic odds more than those of the rest of Europe.

There will then follow a third feelgood sale for retail punters closer to the General Election, goes the theory. Mr Osborne's message: "We have fixed Labour's banking mess." That's if all goes to plan, of course.

But the election message for the Conservatives on banks will still be sullied by Royal Bank of Scotland, where the prospect of selling the taxpayer's 82 per cent stake at a profit by the end of this Parliament is precisely zero. For one thing, Treasury wonks are still engaged in making the delicate decision whether to break the bank up into "bad" and "good" à la Northern Rock. It seems hard, with a backdrop of potential political interference like that, to see those Americans and Singaporeans dipping their hands in their pockets soon.

And, with a more toxic loan book than Lloyds, a wider geographical spread and an investment banking arm to cope with, who would?