Government sell-offs to hit record levels this year

Balances the books - but at a cost

Updated: 
Britain Banks

The government will this year sell off more state-owned assets than ever before.

At £32 billion, says chancellor George Osborne, "the sale of government assets this year will deliver the largest privatisation proceeds of all time, higher than the previous record in 1987."

The privatisations include stakes in RBS, Lloyds, UK Asset Resolution - which holds the loan books of Northern Rock and Bradford & Bingley - and Royal Mail.

In the next few months, the government will start selling off its stake in RBS, with plans to get rid of at least three-quarters of its 78% holding over the next five years. This is expected to raise £2 billion during this financial year, and £25 billion overall.

However, the plan is deeply controversial. The bank was bailed out seven years ago to the tune of £46 billion, meaning taxpayers would only get half their money back - and that's without taking into account the interest the government's paid on the money it borrowed to finance the bailout.

What the series of sell-offs do achieve is to allow the government to balance its books - but at a cost. It will no longer have the profits coming in.

"The Government is now planning to sell financial assets worth £32 billion this year, which reduces public sector net debt straightaway but forfeits the flow of income that these assets would generate in the future," says Robert Chote, chairman of the Office for Budget Responsibility, in a report.

"It is only because of these asset sales that public sector net debt is forecast to fall as a share of GDP this year."

And, says John Thanassoulis, professor of financial economics at Warwick Business School, commitments such as that made about RBS can give the impression that the government is a forced seller who has to accept whatever price is offered.

"Many might look at the UK government and think to themselves 'there's a chancellor who has said he needs to find a lot of money to deal with the deficit and he needs to find it quite urgently' and that would maybe give the impression the government is such a forced seller," he says.

"It would now be very damaging to RBS and Britain if the government were to come back without finding a buyer, and so they will be under pressure to accept low prices."

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