A plan to transfer the government's stake in RBS and Lloyds to individuals is gaining ground.
Investing in bank shares has been a controversial topic over the past couple of years among fund managers, pundits, and The Motley Fool's own community.
The bulls say it's only a matter of time before beleaguered giants like Lloyds Banking Group (LSE: LLOY), Royal Bank of Scotland (LSE: RBS), and Barclays (LSE: BARC) are back on their feet and converting their dominant market position into profits for shareholders who buy at today's cheap prices.
The bears retort that the good times may never return, due to increased regulation, tighter lending, and poorer consumers -- and that even if they do, there'll be plenty more profit warnings and asset writedowns to come, making bank shares too risky to buy.
We've thrashed out the pros and cons in countless articles, and perhaps you've still not made up your mind.
But you could soon be the owner of bank shares whether you like it or not.
Realising our assets
Of course, all UK taxpayers are already part-owners in Lloyds and RBS, as a result of the 2009 government bailout that saw us buy a 43% stake in Lloyds, and an 84% shareholding in crippled RBS. In that sense, the government has already forced us to invest in the banks, by buying in on our behalf.
If you're not happy about this, there's currently nothing you can do about it. Phoning your MP and demanding he or she sells a few Lloyds shares and mails you a cheque isn't going to cut much mustard.
This could be set to change, however, as more details emerge of a mooted plan to distribute these shareholdings directly to UK citizens. It would be done as an alternative to the government offloading them via the stock market or directly to institutions.
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Who'd get what
It's not clear exactly how the shares would be doled out under the plan, which is just one of several options being explored by the Treasury.
It may be that the bank shares only go to UK taxpayers, for instance. Alternatively children could also get a stake, in recognition of the long-term impact of the financial crisis.
It would surely be too unwieldy to allocate shares on the basis of exact taxes paid, though. Therefore if it goes down this route the Conservative-led Coalition would be taking part in a massive wealth redistribution exercise -- since the alternative of selling the stakes to the market to raise the same money for the government would effectively be most beneficial to those who pay the most tax.
No money down
Unlike the privatisations of the 1980s, this time shareholders probably wouldn't even have to stump up cash in advance. But equally we wouldn't be able to sell until the price was above the price the government paid for the shares -- 51p for RBS, and 74p for Lloyds.
Nor would we retain all the proceeds of our sales. Instead, we'd get to keep the difference after refunding the Treasury the initial purchase price.
Reports suggest initial allocations could be in the £500 to £1,000 range, depending on the exact method chosen. If the shares rise 50%, say, and you decide to sell, then gains would be in the order of £250 to £500 -- a decent windfall for most UK households.
A PR boon for the bankers
The government put £45.5 billion into RBS and £23.3 billion into Lloyds, and its holdings are currently underwater.
Arguably it makes little difference in terms of the national balance sheet how the government offloads its shares -- since its liabilities and assets are effectively our liabilities, and it can always raise more money by taxing UK citizens if it has to.
That said, according to Portman Capital, who did the maths behind the proposal, it would be cheaper to redistribute shares directly to households. Portman claims it would cost £250 million, versus £1 billion if the government sold up on our behalf.
Either way, the banks would come off the public balance sheet. A public that has struggled to understand that the government -- and hence they -- will profit if these shareholdings rise will certainly appreciate it if their own shares go up. It might also calm down the banker bashing if everyone directly owned bank shares, which would arguably be helpful in an economy is so dependent on financial services.
All in all, it seems like a great PR move, and a win-win for the government.
More from Owain Bennallack:
> Owain owns shares in Lloyds. He hopes to soon own some more!
> Your tax-free ISA allowance has now increased to £10,680. Open a Motley Fool Self Select ISA today.