After all, a year ago few people thought it would be possible to sell any shares above the state's purchase price of 73.6p. But it was outrageously cheeky of the chancellor to talk about the last Labour government having "forced" British taxpayers into bailing out the banks.
Would Osborne have refused to write the cheque? Would he have declared that taxpayers (and non-taxpayers, for that matter) could choose whether to inject billions? Of course not. Conservative policy towards banks was all over the shop in 2008/09 but nobody was suggesting that Alistair Darling had any real alternative to holding hold his nose and saving the UK banking system.
And, lest we forget, in the case of Lloyds, the Labour government did the public purse a huge favour by allowing – or encouraging – the Black Horse to swallow HBOS, the source of huge post-deal write-offs. The rescue merger was catastrophic for Lloyds shareholders (who are understandably bitter to this day) but it was terrific news for the state that the bank's chairman, Sir Victor Blank, and chief executive, Eric Daniels, were so keen to own the pox-ridden HBOS. The deal saved the rest of us a few bob; without it, the bailout bill might have been even larger.
Osborne is on stronger ground when he says the sale of Lloyds shares is a major milestone in "further normalising" the banking sector. It is true that the regulatory system is improved; that few mourn the death of the Financial Services Authority; and that banks are better capitalised these days. On the other hand, one has to ask why Lloyds shares, which have trebled in value since January 2012, are suddenly so popular with investors.
There are two positive reasons: the UK economy is less sick and Lloyds, under chief executive António Horta-Osório, is better managed. But a third reason, surely, is that investors realise that the UK's banking system will continue to be an oligopoly in which the biggest player – Lloyds – can't fail to make a lot of money one day.
Even after shedding 631 branches as TSB, Lloyds still has a 25% share of the current market and still owns the Halifax, which it absurdly describes as a "challenger" brand. That is a mighty strong position to enjoy, especially when all talk of a competition inquiry has gone cold and the government's hopes of giving the mutual sector an invigorating tickle look laughable after events at the Co-op Bank.
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