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City Republic: Who needs banks anyway?

LONDON - The point of banks, as the BBC's star business correspondent Robert Peston keeps telling us, is to direct money where it's needed -- essentially supplying credit to keep the wheels of the economy oiled, writes Stephen Foster.

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Clearly this isn't happening at the moment, all the banks are doing is behaving like a restaurateur who buys food from a street vendor, repackages it, gets you to pay for his lunch first and then charges three times what it's worth to a very small group of customers prepared to pay over the odds.

While the rest of his customers go hungry.

Governments across the world, first in America and now, spectacularly in Europe, have become terminally fed up with this.

So we have chancellor Alistair Darling saying yesterday that he's contemplating "some pretty big steps...that we wouldn't take in ordinary times" while German premier Angela Merkel hotfoots it home from an EU economic summit, arranged to agree joint action, to unilaterally decide to guarantee all private bank deposits (following in the footsteps of Greece, Ireland and now Denmark).

Merkel acted because the German banks initially refused to bail out property lender Hypo Real Estate (they've subsequently signed up) while across the border the Dutch and Belgian governments have effectively nationalized Belgian giant Fortis, Royal Bank of Scotland's partner in the disastrous purchase of ABN Amro, with the help of French bank BNP Paribas.

Meanwhile, somewhere off the far northern coast of Scotland, Iceland is effectively nationalizing its banks that have somehow, through over-stressed investment firm Baugur, managed to fund the takeover of large chunks of the British high street including Hamleys, Karen Millen, House of Fraser and Iceland (no relation).

If the only institutions able or willing to lend money are central banks why do we need shareholder banks at all?

It gets worse. Barclays, which has just agreed to fork out billions of dollars in bonuses to former Lehman Brothers dealers, is taking some of that money it can borrow cheaply from the Bank of England and using it to continue to offer overdrafts to small businesses, but at a rate that's gone up from 11% to over 15%.

Is this prudent risk management or an outrageous example of naked extortion?

And, finally, US banks, we are told, are not going to borrow from treasury secretary Hank Paulson's $700bn bailout fund because they don't like the terms and conditions, particularly the curbs on what the bosses can pay themselves.

No wonder Asian markets took a powder this morning (Monday), with Tokyo and Hong Kong both dropping around 3%.

The long-delayed signing of the Paulson bill was supposed to put a floor under the global stock market panic, among other things.

Back to the drawing board?

What is Darling planning?

More will emerge today but it looks likely to be some sort of scheme to make a pool of money available to banks and other institutions in return for the Government taking a stake in them, part nationalization if you like.

The Government will also, surely, have to guarantee private bank deposits if it's going to stop a potentially disastrous flight of money to Ireland and other places.

When Northern Rock hit the buffers just over a year ago, Brown and Darling dithered for months because they were terrified that Labour would reappear in its old guise as a partisan of nationalisation and frighten the voters.

Now anything other than nationalization, or government guarantee at the least, is putting the wind up the voters who don't trust shareholder banks at all.

Mixed fortunes for WPP

It looks as though researcher TNS is finally going to drop into WPP CEO Sir Martin Sorrell's apron like a particularly reluctant and sour apple.

WPP had secured 63% of acceptances for the £1.1bn bid by the weekend and lowered its acceptance target to 75%. The remaining shareholders will then be forced to accept.

At the same time Sir Martin was rudely bounced off the list of "ambassadors" for British business by a Downing Street that's highly displeased at his decision to move WPP's tax domicile to Ireland, hardly top of Gordon Brown's Christmas card list at the moment.

Sir Martin will say that he can take such indignities in return for (possibly) saving his shareholders £50m or so in tax thanks to Ireland's looser regime. With a flat (at best) 2009 looming, this money would certainly come in handy.

But WPP has profited mightily by being the UK's spokesman on advertising, marketing and media matters on the world stage and, ferocious networker that he is, Sir Martin has deployed this status to great effect in becoming the global client's best friend.

So I doubt they'll be uncorking the champagne in Farm Street, TNS or no TNS.

Markets plummet on more bank fears

HBOS and RBS led the FTSE 100 down nearly 5% in early trading this morning with Frankfurt and Paris falling by similar amounts.

This is hardly surprising as the perception out there is that more banks will go bust or are about to be nationalized (in which case the share price will obviously fall).

A fall of 5% is panic stations and tin hat time so governments, legislators and central banks need to act fast.

Both the European Central Bank and the Bank of England have let it be known that interest rates will start coming down, maybe this month, but by their preferred measure of a quarter per cent.

This just won't do. The toxic combination of falling share and house prices requires emergency surgery, which means an immediate cut of half a point and that's just for starters.
It's going to yet another interesting week.

Stephen Foster is a former news editor of Campaign, former editor of Marketing Week and Evening Standard ad columnist. He is a partner in Editorial Partnership and writes the blog www.editco.net and Politics of the Media for Brand Republic.

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