The British government has sold a 7.7-percent stake in Royal Bank of Scotland. Taxpayers, who bailed out the lender in the depths of the financial crisis, incurred a huge paper loss of more than two billion pounds.
Britain's government announced on Tuesday it had sold a total of 925 million Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS) shares for 2.71 pounds (€3.08 or $3.61) per share — a 3.5-percent discount to Monday's closing price of just over 2.80 pounds, and a substantial loss compared with RBS's value at the time of its rescue in 2008.
"Over £2.5 billion worth of government-owned RBS shares were sold last night as part of the government's policy to return the bank to private ownership," the Treasury said in a statement, adding that the move represented a "significant step in returning RBS to full private ownership and putting the financial crisis behind us."
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The sale of the 7.7-percent stake in the bank was another step toward re-privatizing Royal Bank of Scotland, which at the height of the global financial crisis had to be rescued by the government in what was the world's biggest bailout by taxpayers. The Conservative government of Prime Minister Theresa May still holds 62.4 percent in RBS, but plans to offload about two-thirds of its stake before the end of 2023.
Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond said the proceeds would go toward reducing the UK's national debt, which was "the right thing to do for taxpayers" and would make the British economy fit for the future.
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In 2015, the British government decided to start selling its holding in RBS, which it bailed out for 45 billion pounds. The discount to Monday's closing price was sharper than during the first share sale in 2015, and points to a lack of investor appetite for RBS shares.
Last year, the Edinburgh, Scotland-based lender posted its first annual bottom-line profit since 2007, following a huge drop in litigation costs. Over the past decade, RBS was forced to set aside billions for penalties related to its financial crisis wrongdoings, and just last month had to pay a $4.9 billion fine imposed by the US Justice Department over its role in the sub-prime housing crisis.
RBS chief executive Ross McEwan said that he was pleased with the government's decision to restart the share sale process. "This is an important moment for RBS and an important step in returning the bank to private ownership," he said in a statement, adding that the move reflected the bank's progress in "building a much simpler, safer bank that is focused on delivering for its customers and its shareholders."
Britain's opposition Labour Party criticized the share sale, saying that taxpayers would lose out and the government should have held out for more. Others argue, however, that years of restructuring have wiped out much of the lender's profits, reducing the chances for taxpayers to get their money back.
uhe/nz (Reuters, AFP, dpa)