ALEX BRUMMER: UK lenders are tied to a volatile banking universe

Fortunately the Chancellor, temporarily, was insulated from the volatile world of markets as he delivered his Budget.

Having recovered Britain’s reputation for fiscal competence, after last year’s failed Truss-Kwarteng experiment, Jeremy Hunt was able to make progress on his key goals of getting inactive citizens back to work.

If US financial channel CNBC had been on in the background he may not have been so quick to give back two-thirds of the fiscal gains accumulated since November 2022.

Warning signs: Hedge funds and traders are often far ahead of the authorities in spotting the weak links in the financial chain

Hunt, with colleagues at the Bank of England, encouraged HSBC to save the UK arm of Silicon Valley Bank for the tech industry.

But the UK, as a major financial centre, will find it hard to escape the eruptions across the rest of the banking universe.

Hedge funds and traders are often far ahead of the authorities in spotting the weak links in the financial chain.

The alarming 20 per cent fall in the share price of Credit Suisse shows how quickly the contagion can jump from second-line institutions, such as SVB, to the mainstream.

In the final quarter of last year depositors pulled £120billion out of Credit Suisse. There has been little since then to encourage funds to come flooding back. 

The bank’s biggest investor Harris Associates has sold its stake. Publication of the bank’s accounts was delayed by the US authorities.

And a Saudi Arabian investor is showing little interest in being lender of last resort.

In the last days of Fred Goodwin’s Royal Bank of Scotland in 2008, the disgraced chief executive toured the City persuading investors to back a £20billion rights issue. 

The equity was forthcoming but it didn’t stop the NatWest owner from having to go to the Government for a rescue after Lehman.

Amid much controversy, the US Treasury and Federal Reserve lost no time in erecting a safety net under the US banking system last weekend with the aim of easing panic. 

This, in spite of pledges made after the great financial crisis that no bank was too big to fail.

The Swiss National Bank is now having to intervene. It will come up with either an offer of liquidity or might even encourage a bear-hug merger with UBS.

Failure to act has hurt other European banks. BNP and other Continental lenders are becoming cautious about transactions with Credit Suisse in the first signs of a credit crunch.

Uncertainty has triggered uncomfortable declines in European equity markets with the bank-heavy FTSE 100 down 3.8 per cent.

Regional banks stocks are stumbling in the US and the main American share indexes are down sharply.

If there is a silver lining it is that market appetite for further interest rate hikes, on both sides of the Atlantic, are easing. No point in piling on the agony when lenders are pulling back on technology and property lending for fear of surging defaults.

Doom loop

The big surprise in the Budget is the speed with which economic forecasts changed.

This, together with the freeze on personal tax thresholds, gave the Chancellor some fiscal space to try something different.

If there is a lesson to be drawn it is that far too much faith is placed in official forecasts. 

After negative growth projections from the Bank of England and Office for Budget Responsibility last year and the IMF this year, opposition politicians couldn’t wait to pour scorn on the country.

They contributed to a doom loop. Yet there is observable evidence – crowded airports, queues at restaurants, overflowing shopping bags and shop openings – to suggest something different.

It takes a great deal to knock Britain’s resilient consumers and firms off course.

The latest YouGov/Cebr consumer and business confidence survey shows rising optimism in almost every category, including house prices and job insecurity. 

All that could go up in smoke if banks refuse to lend to each other or, worse, to customers.

Fortunately, for the moment, the doomsters are losing.

Nuclear spring

Britain has a nasty habit of allowing others to exploit our winning technologies.

The Chancellor deserves praise for recognising the promise of Rolls-Royce small modular reactors after nearly a decade of scepticism and delays.

As part of Great British Nuclear, the Government is pledging to fund an exciting new technology. About time!