Lloyds profits are good news for taxpayers and chancellor too

There now looks to be a more than even chance that we taxpayers will get back the money we pumped into Lloyds to prevent it going bust after the disastrous takeover of HBOS in 2008-9.

The decision by Chancellor Alistair Darling to subscribe £20 billion in new shares was a no-brainer. Private investors were not going to put up the money and the prospect of HBOS going down and taking Lloyds with it was too horrible to contemplate. Millions of people would have lost all or part of their savings, companies would have been going bust in every town and city in the country and the whole banking system would have teetered on the edge of collapse.

What was controversial was the price he paid. The Labour Government bought shares at 73.6p each, when the market price was around 61p. There were loud accusations of over-paying, but the consequences of investing at the market price would have been majority control. As it was the Government was already the largest shareholder with 43.5%, compared to 36.5% being held by Lloyds shareholders, who were supposed to be the acquirers.

After the debacle of Northern Rock, where dissident shareholders refused to accept that the company was bust and took the Government to court, Darling has no wish to control more banks than he had to. The Treasury already owned over 80% of RBS and wanted to avoid owning more than 50% of Lloyds.

A private firm which pays more than the market rate when acquiring another company has to write off the difference as “goodwill.” The Government was forced to do the same, adding the difference in what it paid and the market value of the shares it bought – some £3.5 billion – to the National Debt.

When the Coalition Government sold the first tranche of Lloyds shares last September George Osborne could have claimed a profit on anything over 61p, since the state finances had already taken the “goodwill” hit. But in fact the sale of a 6% stake went at an average price of 75p – an unambiguous profit for the taxpayer.

Since then the Lloyds shares have bounced around between the high-70s and the high-80s, meaning that the Government was able to sell a second block of 7.5% at 75.5p. It has now realised around £7.5 billion and still holds 25% of the business.

Lloyds has been painfully slow to get its act together, but with the economy improving there is a good prospect of the shares recovering sufficiently for more sales, although I suspect the final disposal will wait for Osborne’s last budget in Spring 2015 – just in time to fund a pre-election giveaway.