Should the Government bail out SCF?

Bernard Hickey is one of the few voices arguing that the Government should allow South Canterbury Finance to go into receivership:

But now the government faces an urgent decision between putting South Canterbury into receivership now, or putting in yet more taxpayers money in the hope it can survive and then thrive past the end of the government guarantee.

The choice is a difficult one. The immediate pain from a receivership would be substantial.

Receivership would trigger a payout to investors under the government guarantee of around NZ$1.7 billion. Some believe that shock to the government’s finances would be enough to trigger a review of New Zealand’s sovereign credit rating downgrade by Standard and Poor’s and/or Moody’s.

I don’t believe it would be enough to justify a rating review, but if it did that would immediately increase wholesale interest rates, which would eventually flow through to the entire economy. There is also the fallout on the South Island rural economy.

Any receiver would force through sales of farms, property developments and small businesses, many of whom are not paying the interest on the loans received from South Canterbury Finance. Dairy farm prices in the South Island could potentially take a big hit. Some believe this could send a new chill through the South Island that eventually cost jobs and stunt any recovery of economic growth. That’s because the Australian-owned banks are unlikely to step in to take over the loans.

This is the potential cost of letting it fail. It may be quite huge. It’s easy to just say “let them fail”, but that will mean a large payout by the Government, and a hit to the South Island economy.

South Canterbury Finance does not have a future beyond the end of the Deposit Guarantee. To have such a future, it would need to substantially increase its credit rating, find a new funder and convince already sceptical investors to go naked in backing the finance company without a deposit guarantee. They will also have to do it without their talisman Allan Hubbard, who will be long gone as owner and maestro.

At some point New Zealand’s dairy farming sector, particularly in the South Island, will have to reduce its debt.

When that happens it will be painful.

But as many investors in finance companies such as Strategic, St Laurence, Hanover and Dominion would attest, giving finance companies more time to ‘work it out’ and wait for the ‘market to bounce back’ is often worse than pulling the plug immediately. The New Zealand government faces a bail out decision in the same way Hanover Finance investors did 8 months ago and 12 months before that.

This is the crucial test – can SCF survive in the future if bailed out. Some compare it to Air NZ, which has thrived after a bail out. But there is a major difference between deciding to fly on an airline, or lend money to a finance company.

David Hillary also argues SCF should not be bailed out:

SCF is not a successful business, and it does not have a successful ‘good bank’ to salvage. The damage to SCF’s brand is total, SCF has been selling its best loans, and encouraging its best customers to re-finance elsewhere for probably a year now, leaving it with few good assets left. Its asset origination and management systems and personnel are the problem, and it is what needs to be closed down, not saved. …

SCF’s governance, leadership, culture and practices have been and are so bad that the company’s problems are pervasive, and this means that its liquidation value is likely to be higher than trying to keep it as a going concern.

Whatever the Government decides is going to be pretty unpopular.

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