Bernard Ginns: Accountants merely doing their job in numbers game

MARGARET Hodge certainly has a way with words.

First, this fearless protector of the public purse carved up executives from Amazon, Google and Starbucks for their “immoral” use of tax loopholes.

Next up, the chairman of the public accounts committee savaged tax experts from the Big Four accountancy firms for helping corporates to minimise tax liabilities.

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In withering language, she told them: “What really depresses me is you could contribute so much to society and the public good and you all choose to focus on working in an area which reduces the available resources for us to build schools, hospitals, infrastructure.”

As much as I admire her put-downs, I am split on the wider issue. Part of me thinks that if every company that does business in Britain could pay its fair share of tax contributions, it would help lift the aspirations of our children, improve the healthcare of our sick and bridge the widening gulf between North and South by building new roads, railways, airports and broadband connections in double-quick time. But I also believe that accountants are merely doing their best, within the law, to make our companies as efficient and effective as possible in the cut-throat world of global competition.

The truth lies somewhere in between and the fact remains that only an improving economy will help to pay for all the services we rely on.

On the subject of the north-south divide, a weekend report revealed the gaping chasm that now exists between the wealthy capital and the rest of the UK.

The Financial Times found that houses in London’s top 10 boroughs are now worth as much as the combined property markets of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

The report claimed that the financial crisis has triggered a fall in property values in every region of the UK apart from London.

Savills said that the divergence in values will have long-term impacts on mobility of labour and the pace and distribution of economic recovery.

In London, house prices have risen by 15 per cent since 2007, the year of the crunch. In Yorkshire, house prices have fallen by 15.5 per cent. It is even worse in the North East, where house prices fell 19.3 per cent.

Tom Vosa, chief economist at Yorkshire Bank, skewered the issue in his annual lecture at Leeds Metropolitan University last month when he said the London housing market has “delinked” from the rest of the UK.

He said: “It’s a bit like watching Bullseye – look at what you could have won if you owned a London property.”

Mr Vosa predicted that lower house prices, along with higher unemployment, will continue to weigh down on the Yorkshire economy this year.

This is a stark illustration of how the gulf in wealth perpetuates itself.

Down under, analysts are starting to make noises about the prospects of National Australia Bank selling its under-performing UK operations, known to you and me as Yorkshire and Clydesdale banks.

In a note on Friday, Citigroup analysts upgraded NAB stock to ‘buy’ from ‘neutral’.

Citigroup said: “An exit of NAB’s remaining UK retail banking business at closer to book value has become more viable recently.

“We see fewer near-term risks of disappointment for NAB (credit risk) and the potential for positive responses to announcements on either asset sales, expense initiatives or management change.”

The analysts said the sale of the UK operations at 0.9 times book value could boost core tier 1 capital by 70 basis points and allow for a capital return of about $1bn.

NAB tried and failed to offload the banks in 2010 and 2011. Australian commentators have unkindly described them as a “millstone”, “a major blight” and “an albatross around NAB’s neck”.

NAB chief executive Cameron Clyne told shareholders in December that Yorkshire and Clydesdale are “lower risk and better capitalised” as a result of the ongoing restructuring exercise.

One possible buyer could be Santander UK, which has refused to comment on reports that it is considering a £2bn bid.

The acquisition of Yorkshire and Clydesdale would give it increased muscle in business banking in the North of England and Scotland.

Santander UK could fund the takeover from the £2bn excess capital sitting on its balance sheet.

Another option for NAB would be to float the operations, which could allow shareholders to benefit in more ways than a straight sale.

A report from Credit Suisse said an initial public offering could add between $1.5bn and $4bn to NAB’s market capitalisation.

The newly created UK plc would debut with a stock market value of $3bn and be ranked 75th in the FTSE-250, said Credit Suisse.

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