MELISSA BLOCK, host:
Another day, another bailout. That was the headline this morning in the British newspaper The Guardian, and it wasn't referring to an American bank. The British government is nationalizing troubled mortgage lender Bradford & Bingley. On top of that, a bank based in Belgium is being partially nationalized, and the German government has been forced to support a giant Realty company. NPR's Rob Gifford explains what's going on in Europe.
ROB GIFFORD: Once upon a time in Britain, as in so many places, there were smaller regional lenders, known as building societies here, who helped people to buy a house. Like the old savings and loans in the U.S., they existed on a rather quaint, old-fashioned idea whereby for every one pound sterling of hard-earned savings deposited with them, they would lend out one pound sterling, and make a profit on charging more to their borrowers than they offered to their savers. Then, in the go-go days of the '80s and '90s, fast-money men came along and said: You quaint, old-fashioned building societies should become banks, and then you'll be able to raise money on international capital markets. And so they did. Will Hutton, a columnist for The Guardian newspaper, explains what happened next.
Mr. WILL HUTTON (Columnist, The Guardian): It was clear they would expand their balance sheet very fast, which is what took place. It was clear that they'd become so hungry for short-term profit that actually they'd make mistakes. And it was clear they'd ultimately get taken over, and we'd lose our regional financial system. And it's happened.
GIFFORD: With the nationalization of the Bradford & Bingley today, every single one of those regional building societies has now been taken over either by the government or by one of the big, mainstream banks. The only cries louder than those of the shareholders who've lost everything are those of the analysts shouting, I told you so. British Prime Minster Gordon Brown sought to soothe troubled nerves, though, by reiterating that his government will stand as the bank of last resort.
Prime Minister GORDON BROWN (Great Britain): The first economic duty of a government is the stability of the system, and I've said we'll do whatever it takes to ensure the stability of the British financial system.
GIFFORD: All of this came just as the contagion spread to continental Europe as well, with the news that banking and insurance giant Fortis will also be partially nationalized. Ministers from the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg agreed to save Fortis with an injection of $16 billion after no serious commercial bidder could be found. The bank's chief executive, Filip Dierckx, said rumors and speculation were partly to blame, but he did admit the bank had overreached itself.
Mr. FILIP DIERCKX (Chief Executive, Fortis): I'm also not going to deny that if you look at some of the decisions, which were taken in the past, then you can say that probably they were done at the wrong moment, that the timing was not correct.
GIFFORD: Elsewhere in Europe, Germany's number two commercial property lender became the first German blue chip company to seek a bailout from its government. And the government in Iceland said it was taking control of that country's third-largest bank. On the streets of the financial district of London, known as the Square Mile, though, perhaps surprisingly, it wasn't all doom and gloom today - city workers Sergio Baratesta and Tom Hodges even suggesting that the worst may have passed.
Mr. SERGIO BARATESTA (City Worker): I don't think it's going to get any worse, because I think we got to the bottom at the moment. It's looking like it's going to be tough, really hard to recover, but I think it's going to get better, from now on.
Mr. TOM HODGES (City Worker): I think people are slowly getting used to this now. So I think people are quite used to being cautious and conservative about the whole thing. Everyone's got used to it. Everyone's got used to not perhaps borrowing and spending as ridiculously as we have over the last couple of years, really.
GIFFORD: Who knows? Perhaps banks, too, are even returning to some of those quaint, old-fashioned concepts of banking. Rob Gifford, NPR News, London.
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