Mark Leftly: We have every right to know about the banks' £27bn black hole

Mark Leftly
Friday 21 June 2013 00:36
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Outlook One of the stranger questions raised after the Prudential Regulatory Authority (PRA) revealed that five of the country's biggest lenders have a £27bn black hole in their balance sheets was whether or not the gap should have been disclosed at all.

Yesterday, Lloyds Banking Group was found to be the biggest culprit. It was ordered to raise another £7bn just hours after the Chancellor, George Osborne, signalled in his Mansion House speech that he is ready to sell the taxpayers' stake in the business.

While stressing that "more transparency is welcome", PricewaterhouseCoopers' head of UK financial services, Kevin Burrowes, said that it was "debatable whether this disclosure is supportive of pushing economic growth or facilitates more bank lending". He is far from the only person who feels this way and, in his defence, appreciates both sides of the argument.

Mr Burrowes has a point in that such disclosure will make it easier for banks to use the excuse that they are struggling to lend when so much cash is tied up in strengthening their balance sheets. He also argues that it is "tougher to have a public conversation than a private one", which is surely right as it becomes more difficult for banks to convince the markets that they are getting back on track.

But the unfortunate consequences of giving the banks an excuse to restrict loans and illustrating how difficult their situations remain cannot be reasons enough to keep this news under wraps. Quite the opposite, as the flipside, which Mr Burrowes acknowledges, is that investors have every right to know that they are buying into banks that will either have to find more cash or reduce riskier aspects of their businesses.

What is remarkable is how close we came to not finding out. A banking source tells me that Mr Osborne, Treasury officials and the PRA did indeed have tough talks over whether or not to make this information public.

Given that the pre-crisis dealings of the banks were so opaque and impervious to all but the most gifted of forensic accountants, their financial products so fiendishly complex, and their risk-taking so absurd, there should have been nothing to debate.

The public has the right to this information – a single detail should not be held back. Lives were ruined, businesses wrecked, a generation lost to unemployment. The public needs to know what problems face institutions that, remember, were so fundamental to the well-being of the country that they could not be left to their deserved fates of failing.

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