‘Tell Sid’ NatWest sale to start in June

Please use the sharing tools found via the share button at the top or side of articles. Copying articles to share with others is a breach of FT.com T&Cs and Copyright Policy. Email licensing@ft.com to buy additional rights. Subscribers may share up to 10 or 20 articles per month using the gift article service. More information can be found at https://www.ft.com/tour. https://www.ft.com/content/5d5d783e-b803-4602-ad36-fb7bd0a608ad UK chancellor Jeremy Hunt has said he will consider selling the government’s remaining shares in NatWest to the general public in the next 12 months as part of his Autumn Statement on Wednesday. The Treasury still owns 39 per cent of the UK high street bank as the result of a £45.5bn bailout of the lender during the financial crisis in 2008, when it was known as Royal Bank of Scotland. The government has steadily reduced its stake from a peak of 84 per cent but is unlikely to ever recover the full value. “It’s time to get Sid investing again,” Hunt said, referring to an advertising campaign used to promote a privatisation drive by Margaret Thatcher’s government in the 1980s. The ubiquitous “Tell Sid” adverts encouraged taxpayers to buy discounted shares in the £5.6bn flotation of British Gas in 1986, which they did by attaching a cheque to a newspaper coupon. Hunt said the NatWest plan was “subject to market conditions and achieving value for money” and that the government wanted to fully exit its investment in 2025 or 2026. However, NatWest shares have performed poorly this year, shedding 25 per cent due to disappointing earnings and the departure of chief executive Dame Alison Rose in the wake of a campaign by Nigel Farage. The former UK Independence and Brexit party leader revealed in July that he had been cut off by NatWest’s private banking arm, Coutts, in part because its reputation risk committee decided that his political views did not align with its values. NatWest shares dropped about 1 per cent to 205p after Hunt’s speech. The stock trades at a steep 50 per cent discount to the book value of the bank’s assets. “We welcome the government’s continued commitment to returning NatWest to private ownership and believe this is in the best interests of the bank and our shareholders,” NatWest said. Since its 2008 rescue, NatWest has closed most of the international and investment banking operations that led to its bailout and it is now primarily a high-street retail and business lender. It rebranded from RBS in 2020 to break with the toxic legacy. This is not the first time a Conservative government has floated the idea of selling a bailed-out bank’s stock to the public. In 2015, then-chancellor George Osborne said in an election manifesto that the remaining 9 per cent stake in Lloyds Banking Group would be sold to the public, only to withdraw the offer a year later.

A government initiative reminiscent of the famed “Tell Sid” campaign could soon see NatWest shares made available to the public, with plans potentially taking shape as early as June, according to an official from the entity managing the state’s nearly £7 billion stake in the bank.

Speculation has been mounting regarding the timing of a potential sale since Chancellor Jeremy Hunt hinted in November at the possibility of the first retail offer of the taxpayer’s stake to individual investors.

Overseen by UK Government Investments (UKGI), the shareholding is undergoing strategic consideration, with Holger Vieten, representing the group, indicating to MPs on the Commons treasury committee that a sale could materialize “around summertime,” at the earliest, possibly in June.

“We are in the development and design stage; we are looking at various options,” Vieten stated.

Assisting UKGI in charting the course are advisors from Goldman Sachs and Barclays, alongside legal counsel from Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer.

NatWest’s emergence as the largest shareholder for the taxpayer dates back to the 2007-2009 financial crisis when the state intervened with a £45.5 billion rescue package for the bank.

The government’s stake, initially at 84 per cent, has since been reduced to 35 per cent through a series of transactions, involving the sale of significant share blocks to institutional investors and back to the FTSE 100-listed bank. Shares have gradually entered the stock market via a trading plan.

However, these sales have incurred losses for the taxpayer due to pricing well below the 502p bailout rate, with shares closing recently at 220p.

Charles Donald, head of UKGI, stressed the importance of clarity regarding NatWest’s leadership before proceeding with a retail sale.

Following a scandal involving the bank’s Coutts private banking arm, Dame Alison Rose stepped down as chief executive, with Paul Thwaite overseeing operations on an interim basis. Rick Haythornthwaite, slated to assume the chairmanship in April, will play a pivotal role in the decision-making process.

Donald highlighted the necessity for “clarity” on Rose’s successor “for the market to be comfortable” with a share sale.

Ministers envision a retail offer of NatWest stock as a means to engage public interest, drawing parallels to the iconic 1986 privatisation of British Gas, famously promoted through the “Tell Sid” advertising campaign.

Hunt emphasized the aim to reignite individual investor participation, coinciding with reports of the Treasury enlisting M&C Saatchi, the advertising agency, to spearhead a campaign.