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City Republic: Brave Scots battle for Bank of Scotland

LONDON - It's like 'Braveheart' all over again with Scottish bankers surging over the border to waste the English who are determined to remove one of the remaining planks of the Edinburgh financial establishment.

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Plans to merge Halifax Bank of Scotland -- particularly the latter bit -- with Lloyds TSB have angered Scots bankers Sir George Mathewson and Sir Peter Burt, once chairman of ITV, to the extent that they are demanding the removal of HBOS chairman Sir Dennis Stevenson and CEO Andy Hornby, who are going anyway, and their replacement by themselves.

Mathewson, former CEO of Royal Bank of Scotland and Burt, of Bank of Scotland and the man who organized the merger with the Halifax, are angry that Bank of Scotland will, in effect, disappear in the Government-inspired merger with Lloyds.

They say that, now the Government has bailed out the banks and underwritten their lending for the next couple of years, HBOS can remain independent, saving tens of thousands of jobs, many in Scotland.

Government sources have poured cold water on this, pointing out that the two knights don't know quite how bad things are at HBOS and that, in any case, HBOS and Lloyds are already working together, with Lloyds lending HBOS £10bn.

Lloyds has called the duo's plans, which will be spelt out in full later this week, "irresponsible and lacking credibility", which is pretty explosive language in the superficially polite world of banking.

But the alternative plan is playing much better north of the border, already enjoying the support of SNP leader Alex Salmond and attracting interest at least from giant Scottish insurance company Standard Life -- the third leg of the Edinburgh financial triumvirate.

27 years ago the other big Edinburgh bank RBS was under siege from both Standard Chartered and HSBC but the Scots managed to fend them off, with help of a referral to the Monopolies Commission, so don't write them off.

At the same time there may also be a formal expression of interest in HBOS this week from a continental bank, with Spain's BBVA, Santander's big rival, in the frame.

Santander, which has already snapped up Alliance & Leicester and Bradford & Bingley's loan book, itself announced this morning that it's raising $9.4bn from shareholders although yet another UK shopping trip looks rather unlikely.

Ultimately it's down to the Government.

It's unlikely, for example, that BBVA has £11.5bn of spare capital to pump into HBOS -- which is what the Government is proposing to do. And Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling would look rather foolish to be appearing to say to all and sundry, here's £11.5bn, please take this bank away.

But the deal with Lloyds isn't done and dusted yet.

China presses the panic button


China is pump up to $586bn into new infrastructure and housing projects to get its economy moving again as growth there slackens in the aftermath of the Beijing Olympics.

China's growth is forecast to slow to 6% this year from 12% last as markets for its exports cool down and the construction boom pauses for breath.

You would think they'd be happy with a mere 6%, particularly as the slowdown in growth has seen inflation cool, but many Chinese are heavily exposed to stock market investments and commercial and residential property and the Chinese government is fearful that a slide could turn into a slump.

This injection will come as much-needed good news for a whole range of Western companies, from the giant miners supplying raw materials to China to the likes of WPP, which is dependent on the Far East for much of its growth, to the hard-pressed US car giants -- currently warning that they'll all run out of money next year -- who need export markets desperately.

Far Eastern stock markets rose this morning on the news, as did commodities and US stock market indices -- indicating a jump on Wall Street later today.

It's rather alarming to think that one country, not that long ago relatively unregarded in economic terms, could be so important.

At the moment Europe's political leaders are competing hard to be the first to entertain new US president Barack Obama.

Don't be surprised if he heads off to Beijing first.

Business is business after all.

European stocks open higher

Stock markets in London, Paris and Frankfurt opened solidly higher this morning on news of the Chinese package and growing signs that governments in Europe are planning to cut taxes as well as interest rates.

In the UK Tory leader David Cameron is planning to unveil proposed "fully-funded" tax cuts aimed at helping those in danger of losing their jobs, which is an intriguing notion on both counts.


He may be thinking of a reduction in VAT, proposed over the weekend by the Centre for Economics and Business Research, which argued that a cut in VAT would be revenue-neutral as the extra sales it generated would keep net revenue levels up.

Gordon Brown is also expected to promise tax cuts when he addresses the Lord Mayor's Banquet.

Both leaders are studiously avoiding the elephant in the living room that is higher taxes on rich people.

If the intention is to help people in danger of losing their jobs, the obvious thing to do is cut taxes for people who need to work and raise them for people who don't or should have been able to accumulate money in the good years.

This is exactly what Barack Obama promised to do in his presidential campaign and it won't have escaped the notice of Brown and Cameron that he won.

But will they ever be brave enough?

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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