Chancellor ponders latest plan to privatise state-owned banks

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Under a think tank proposal, taxpayers could get free shares in RBS and Lloyds
Under a think tank proposal, taxpayers could get free shares in RBS and Lloyds Photo: PA

Fancy some free shares? Forty-eight million people - everyone with a National Insurance number - could become a share owner if the Chancellor is tempted to take on the latest idea to get the state-backed banks off the state's hands.

The think tank Policy Exchange, which is well respected by the coalition, has put forward a plan that could do just that.

It would work like this:

Around half of the shares in RBS, and a third of shares in Lloyds, would be given out to taxpayers. Potentially that means nearly 50 million people would apply, but the estimate is that between 20 and 30 million people would take up more than a thousand pounds worth of shares.

At the same time, around a quarter of the remaining shares in RBS and the rest of the 70 percent of shares in Lloyds would be sold off to the market, with other banks or financial institutions likely to be tempted.

But the critical neatness about the Policy Exchange plan is that the shares aren't just given away, leaving what could be a £50 billion hole in the public finances.

Chancellor George Osborne faces a policy problem over state-owned banks
Chancellor George Osborne faces a policy problem over state-owned banks Credit: Jonathan Brady/PA Wire

Instead, if and when the shares are sold above a certain floor price, the initial cost of the shares has to be paid. Policy Exchange says:

  • If the share price falls under the floor then no-one will want to sell. As a result taxpayers would take the profits from any rise in the share price above the floor price, but would not lose any money if the share price dropped below the floor price.
  • If the share price never exceeds the floor price, the shares would be returned to government ownership after 10 years. This gives taxpayers confidence in taking on shares as there is no downside or up-front cost.

Last week a member of George Osborne's team told me getting RBS and Lloyds back into the private sector was the "most difficult and problematic policy problem" the government has to deal with.

There is an intense debate on how to solve the conundrum, including ideas like splitting and selling RBS, as we reported on last week.

But this potential solution from Policy Exchange certainly has some attractions, combining the electoral appeal of a share giveaway while appearing to minimise risk to the public.