- The Washington Times - Monday, April 21, 2008


LONDON — The Bank of England today will release its plan to swap government bonds for mortgage-backed securities in an effort to ease credit costs and help British homeowners, said Chancellor of the Exchequer Alistair Darling.

This will “unfreeze the situation we’ve got at the moment,” Mr. Darling said yesterday in an interview on British Broadcasting Corp. television. “What the Bank of England will do is, in effect, lend the banks that money. In the meantime, the Bank of England will take a security,” he said.

The government of Prime Minister Gordon Brown is looking for ways to promote lending after an increase in borrowing costs caused banks from HBOS to Lloyds to curb credit. That raised the costs of mortgage loans, even after central bank policy-makers cut the benchmark lending rate three times since December to help avert a British recession.

By offering commercial lenders government bonds, the central bank will add to their inventory of liquid assets and make it easier for them to raise cash and lend money, especially to consumers seeking mortgages. In return, the government will hold riskier mortgage-backed assets as security.

The central bank and the Treasury may offer a swap of $100 billion, BBC reported Saturday. Former Bank of England policy-maker Willem Buiter said that may not be enough. The authorities may need to provide double that amount to revive the mortgage market, he said.

A Bank of England spokesman declined to comment on Mr. Darling’s remarks.

The plan’s success “all depends on the scale,” Mr. Buiter, a London School of Economics professor, said Friday. “If they do $10 billion it’s not going to do much. If they do $110 billion it would help deal with the overhang of illiquid mortgage-backed securities that mortgage lenders have on their balance sheet and prevent them from engaging in any new lending.”

“This is an essential initial step in trying to get the financial market stabilized and that in turn will help the mortgage market,” Mr. Darling said. “We can reopen the financial markets, because that is an essential precondition for the provision of mortgages.”

If successful, “the liquidity support facility may help relieve at least some pressure on the Monetary Policy Committee to cut rates,” said Nick Bate, an economist at Merrill Lynch & Co.

Mr. Darling, who didn’t specify the size of the swap program, said he wants British banks to be transparent in declaring losses on bad loans. He also urged them to pass on interest rate cuts to consumers.

“It’s important the banks begin now to expose the extent of their losses and explain now how they are going to rebuild their capital,” he said.

Royal Bank of Scotland Group PLC, Britain’s second-biggest lender, is considering a share sale to shore up capital depleted by credit-related write-downs and its part in the acquisition of ABN Amro Holding NV last year, said a person with knowledge of the plan.

“I would like to see banks do more to pass on the interest rate cuts,” Mr. Darling said.

At the same time, the finance minister urged patience, saying the credit crunch partly needs time to resolve itself. Mr. Darling said one analogy was to someone with a dose of food poisoning, which “just has to work its way through the system.”

“We can help the process and the Bank of England’s measures … will help the process, which in turn will help the housing market,” he said.

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