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How Britain failed in duty to protect Icesave customers

Gordon Brown often talks about how politicians must take tough decisions, but he won't have faced too many dilemmas like the one that's troubled Icelandic President Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson in recent days.

In deciding whether to ratify his parliament's vote to pay £3.1bn in compensation for the banking crisis to Britain and the Netherlands, President Grimsson risked enraging the three-quarters of his population who oppose the idea or the international community (blowing Iceland's chances of joining the European Union, its best hope of financial salvation).

You have to sympathise with Iceland. For Britain, the proposed payment of £2.4bn over 15 years will make only a tiny impression on the budget deficit. But the compensation package represents 40 per cent of Iceland's GDP and is the equivalent of £11,000 of debt for every citizen.

Still, the hard truth of the matter is that Iceland is obliged to make good on this money. For one thing, settling the compensation row was part of the deal it made with the International Monetary Fund when it got a bail-out from the scheme in the wake of its financial collapse. And even before then, Iceland had put on record its commitment to funding a deposit protection scheme for customers of its banks in the event of them losing money. It has to keep that promise.

The biggest villains in this story, however, are to be found closer to home. The UK Treasury and the Financial Services Authority utterly failed in their duties to protect British savers by letting Landsbanki and its UK subsidiary Icesave (and several other European banks) operate here in the way it did.

Three years ago, I wrote an article explaining that Icesave customers ought to be aware that the bank was not fully regulated by the FSA but operated here through the passport system, which applied then to many banks from the European Economic Area.

What this meant in practice (though it took days to wheedle this out of the authorities) was that in the event of Landsbanki going bust, savers would have to seek compensation from the Icelandic authorities, rather than applying to the UK's Financial Services Compensation Scheme.

Even before Northern Rock collapsed (the happy days when

the possibility of bank failures seemed remote), that would not have been a satisfactory arrangement. But at the time I was explaining the rules to readers of The Independent, several months after Rock had gone under, the FSA and the Treasury were not in any way concerned. Six months later, they found themselves caught on the hook of the uncertainties over the way in which Icesave customers were protected — and the Britishtaxpayer had to pick up the bill.

Kraft's Irene Rosenfeld is clearly set on winning the day at Cadbury. In selling her company's pizza business — one of Kraft's best performers — to finance the offer of more cash to Cadbury investors, she is betting her own future on securing the deal. If she fails, Kraft will be a significantly weaker company and Ms Rosenfeld'sposition will be threatened.

Moreover, although Kraft's offer is not yet finalised, yesterday's sweetener may come to be seen as a case of all or nothing. While Kraft will come under further pressure to raise its offer, rather than simply improving the terms, its shareholders, led by Warren Buffett, are determined to keep it on a tight rein.

Mr Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway has fired a warning shot across the bows of Kraft, refusing to sign a blank cheque for the purchase of Cadbury.

So is it enough? That question is impossible to answer: though the offer represents a substantialpremium to the price at which Cadbury was trading before this battle began, investors had been hoping for significantly more and may yet buy the British company's argument that Kraft has come in too low.

On the other hand, with rival bidders looking less likely now Nestle is out of the picture, Kraft is the only game in town for investors who want to cash in on the substantial gains

prompted by this saga. This one remains too close to call.

Could this be a belated Christmas present to Britain's bookies from the men (they're all men) who run British horseracing?

Apparently, young people are too stupid to cope with fractional odds such as 15/8, 7/2, 100/30 and suchlike, so Racing For Change wants to sacrifice these quaint little anachronisms on the altar of decimalisation. So instead you'll get 1.875/1, 3.5/1 and, well, 3.3333333 (ad infinitim)/1 .

Presumably, this is aimed at making it easier for a new generation of racegoers to understand betting prices. Cue John McCririck with the point that this will allow the bookies to make hay. Under the current system, if they want to push a price out from 7/2 on the course, the only place they can go is 4/1. With decimal odds, the temptation will be to boost margins by, say, easing the price to 3.6/1 first, and then 3.7/1 and so on.

Well maybe. It's worth noting that where decimalisation has been introduced in other markets, it has tended to squeeze margins rather than increase them. British bookmaking is fiercely competitive and decimalisation could ultimately work in favour of the punter because it will make it easier for firms to attract business by offering prices that are a point or two better than rivals.

Many bookies already offer decimal odds through their websites and report that fractional versions are far more popular (which all goes to show that young people might not be as stupid as the Cholmondley-Warners that run racing seem to think). Quite apart from how such a change might be enforced.

This being Britain, it won't be hard to find some grizzled old turf accountant, taken with the idea of becoming a latter day metric martyr. Still, if the racing industry feels in need of some publicity, that should do the trick.

Belfast Telegraph