Taxpayers took a hit of at least £230m through the sale of a stake in Lloyds Banking Group, the National Audit Office said on Wednesday, in a report that contradicts government claims that it a made a profit on the privatisation of the bailed-out institution.
On the day the 4.2bn shares in Lloyds were sold in September George Osborne tweeted: "Confirm have sold 6% of Lloyds shares at 75p. Profit for taxpayer & important step in plan to get their money back and repair economy."
The independent state auditor cast doubt upon the claim that a profit of £60m had been secured from selling off 6% of the state-owned stake in the bank, after it examined the borrowing costs incurred by the government when it bailed out the banks in 2008.
"Taking account of the cost of borrowing the money to buy the shares, there was a shortfall for the taxpayer of at least £230m," the NAO said.
Even so, it concluded that the transaction represented value for money. It said the Treasury should take the cost of financing the bailout into account when deciding whether to hold on to shares in Lloyds rather than selling them. The government is yet to sell off any of its 81% stake in Royal Bank of Scotland.
Its calculations could suggest that if the remaining 33% stake in Lloyds were sold off at a similar price and in a similar way then the loss to the taxpayer on the bailout could amount to £1.5bn.
The NAO's calculations show the Treasury could have claimed a higher profit of £120m – using a lower average buying price of 72.2p a share rather than 73.6p – by taking into account fees paid by Lloyds to the Treasury.
The chancellor has said that the next tranche of Lloyds shares is likely to be sold off to the public. The NAO said the move was ruled out in September because it would have taken six months to conduct a share sale this way and might not have produced the best return for taxpayers.
The NAO report, which backs the decision to sell the Lloyds shares and the way the sell-off was conducted, sheds some light on the processes considered by UK Financial Investments, which looks after taxpayer stakes in the bailed-out banks.
The financial secretary to the Treasury, Sajid Javid, focused on the NAO conclusion that the sale was value for money. He said: "The proceeds from the sale have reduced the national debt by over half a billion pounds but, as the NAO also rightly points out, the country has had to pay a high price for the extra debt it has taken on because of the financial crisis."
The NAO said that during 2012 and 2013 UKFI was approached by three potential purchasers and informal discussions took place but no deal concluded. Instead UKFI had concluded a sale to institutional investors was the best option.
Executives from UKFI have previously revealed that they ruled out selling the stake at a price above 75p because demand would have fallen away and it would have required selling 60% of the shares to institutions seen as shorter-term investors, such as hedge funds.
Such short-term investors ended up with 20% of the shares sold after approval from the chancellor. The NAO attempted to analyse if the shares that had been bought had been quickly sold on and found that while one institution had reduced its shareholding by about 10%, there had been no change in two institutions' holdings, and one institution had increased its holding by about 20%.
Amyas Morse, head of the NAO, said: "The programme of sales of the taxpayers' holdings of bank shares has got off to a good start. Sale options were reviewed thoroughly and UKFI looks to have got its timing right. The sale took place when the shares were trading close to a 12-month high and at the upper end of estimates for the fair value of the business".
António Horta-Osório, the boss of Lloyds Banking Group, was handed a £2.3m share bonus last month because of the rise in the bank's shares which closed last night at 76p.
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