City Republic: What's next in the credit crunch?

LONDON - Credit crunch woes hit insurers, banks and governments at odds over lending, and China slowdown hits the miners.

Some people are saying that the credit crunch is over and the real story is the recession but the reality seems to be that we now have an interlinked story.

Credit is still crunching away with news over the weekend that giant Dutch bank ING, repository of huge amounts of British savings, is to receive a £9bn injection from the Dutch government following its first quarterly loss and the South Korean government, which sits atop one of the world's so-called "tiger" economies, is pumping $30bn into its banks and underwriting $300bn of loans.

At home the markets will be watching the fortunes of insurance companies closely as fears emerged last week that the likes of Aviva (Norwich Union), Legal & General, Prudential and Standard Life would need to raise more capital because of their exposure to, among other things, flagging company bonds.

Also we have the beginnings of what may be a protracted cold war between the Government and the banks over house repossessions and loans to small businesses.

House repossessions are soaring, running at around twice last year's levels, with Northern Rock leading the way as it shrinks its mortgage book to pay back the £25.9bn government loan.

But the other banks will be doing likewise as they shrink their balance sheets (that is, cut down on the loans they see as dodgy) so they too can pay back the money they may borrow from the Government (these deals aren't done yet) and/or increase their ratio of capital to loans.

Then they can start paying dividends again (which would also help the insurance companies).

The Government wants them to go easy on homeowners in arrears, if necessary by renegotiating terms, but the banks say this just means they have to support bad loans for longer.

As for small business loans, by bank standards a small business can actually be quite a big business for the rest of us, these are clearly a risk in a rapidly-contracting economy and the banks will only continue to lend if they get higher interest and bigger arrangement fees.

New business secretary Lord Mandelson entered the lists yesterday, criticizing the banks on TV and this morning the mighty Daily Mail's front page announced a "charter for change" to win a fair deal for small firms. So this one will run and run.

But the best hope for borrowers of any hue is that the banks settle down a bit and begin lending to each other first.

This should start to happen as from this week the Bank of England is offering more and cheaper overnight money and, from November, the same with 84-day money (what the banks really need).

Libor, the London Interbank Offered Rate, the rate at which banks lend to each other, inched down a little last week but is still way over base rate.

There were also rumours that one big bank had re-entered the market, realizing perhaps that doing business at these levels would be highly profitable.

A week or so of relative calm would do wonders for bank confidence.

ECB's Trichet hints at further rate cuts

Tackling the recession needs further rate cuts and fast and European Central Bank governor Jean-Claude Trichet, a notorious hawk when it comes to keeping interest rates high, has said that his priority is the "very important growth slowdown."

He must have had that Nicolas Sarkozy ringing him up in the middle of the night.
If Trichet is prepared to move there must be pressure on the Bank of England to do the same.

So another rate cut is on the cards but will it be a quarter or half a point?

Is 9% growth a China crisis?

You wouldn't have thought so but 9%, the rate of growth in the Chinese economy over the last quarter, is actually the lowest rate in 5 years (last quarter it was 10.1%).

This isn't really surprising (although many analysts forecast a higher rate). Other countries are cutting back on imports from China to a degree and much of the phenomenal recent boom in Chinese construction was spurred by the Olympics in Beijing.

But this has hammered mining stocks and commodity prices around the world.

Commodity prices coming down is good news in many ways (oil prices are now at a level last seen 15 months ago although they're still, historically, high).

But mining stocks have been the main support of the London Ftse 100 for over a couple of years now although in recent months they've actually fallen faster than the banks.

The miners are still making good money of course so why are investors selling?

One reason is the current crisis among our old friends the hedge funds.

Their investors have been pulling money out as fast as they can in the rush to cash, meaning that the hedgies have to find the money from somewhere.

In many cases the only option open to them, with no more cheap credit around, is to sell shares and this often means in miners, some of the biggest cap stocks around.

So miners have fallen faster than their performance indicates they should have.

In the old days this used to be called a buying opportunity.

Europe inches higher

European markets opened modestly higher this morning (Monday) following a solid performance in the Far East.

But in London insurance giant Standard Life was one of the early fallers, suggesting that the insurance companies are still under pressure over their capital ratios.

Prudential though was a sharp early riser in response to chatter that it is going to buy failed US giant AIG's Far East businesses.

Standard Life, which was demutualised a few years ago, is one of Scotland's biggest companies.

With the two main Scottish banks, RBS and Halifax Bank of Scotland, in the doghouse the Edinburgh financial establishment won't want to see Standard Life come under pressure.

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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