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Anthony Hilton: Clearing up the mess at RBS is actually a perverse comfort in troubled times

20th June 2012

In light of the current state of affairs in Greece, Anthony Hilton - keynote speaker, broadcaster, journalist and lecturer – gave his view on the volatile financial situation and its potential effect on the rest of the world’s economies.

“The world is in a huge funk about Greece and what will happen if it defaults

The annual meeting of Royal Bank of Scotland brought a reminder of just how over the top the behaviour of that bank became in the final days before its fall. The bank's no longer new chairman Sir Philip Hampton told shareholders that clearing up the mess was a task literally unprecedented in its scale, and – because the bank has to keep running in the meantime – in its complexity.

To underline the point, he reminded us that when it had to be bailed out RBS was the largest bank in the world with a balance sheet of £3trn, which was twice the size of the entire UK economy.

There is a perverse comfort to be taken from this, in that though badly winded by the crash, we have survived. Currently the world is in a huge funk about Greece and what will happen if it defaults and leaves the euro. But rather than make wild guesses about the dangers, let us take comfort from the fact that the Greek economy is significantly smaller than Lehman Brothers was when it collapsed in 2008.

The annual output of Greece is about $300bn (£195bn), the equivalent to what is produced in Boston or at least 20 cities in China whose names we have never heard of. The balance sheet of Lehman as measured under US accounting principles was $600bn when it went under – though academics say its effective size was much bigger because of counter-party risk which was treated as netted off and therefore immaterial, but turned out not to be.

The world's economies survived the turmoil which followed the collapse of the US bank, albeit we are still living with the after-shock.

By this yardstick the collapse of Greece might even be a bit of an anti-climax given it would be massively less complex than Lehman, with nothing like the cross-border complexities and counter-party risk.

I doubt many Greeks will see it like that, though. Or many bankers.”

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