Credit Crisis Hits British Lender

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PA / Landov

Northern Rock branch in Newcastle, U.K.

When England's century-old Northern Counties Permanent Building Society merged with the Rock Building Society to become Northern Rock in 1965, it's hard to imagine it was too troubled by the health of the U.S. mortgage sector. But times change. The tight squeeze in the global credit markets has struck another financial institution, and forced another central bank to intervene.

Late Thursday, it emerged that the Bank of England had pledged emergency credit to Northern Rock, Britain's fifth-largest mortgage provider and the U.K.'s first bank to be left reeling from the global credit crunch. Jitters in the credit markets were triggered by the collapse of a U.S. subprime mortgage sector built on lending to home buyers with poor credit histories. With that risky debt having been spliced, repackaged and flogged to banks around the world, financial institutions are less keen to lend each other cash. And when they do, they're charging each other more for the privilege.

German, French and Dutch institutions have already come unstuck through exposure to the subprime debts. Northern Rock's problem: Its modest savings business compared to its mortgage lending arm means it leans on wholesale credit markets for a larger share of its funding than its rivals. With that well drying up, it "hits them disproportionately," says Alex Potter, an analyst at Collins Stewart in London.

Shares in the lender plummeted by a quarter on Friday (they'd already fallen by half this year). But Northern Rock isn't likely to fold. Britain's Financial Services Authority called the bank's loan book "good quality" in a statement issued jointly with the Bank of England and the U.K. Treasury. And though it's not yet clear how big the Bank of England's lifeline is, the central bank's cash means savers' own deposits are safe. "If I were a depositor, knowing I have the Bank of England behind me is probably the safest place to be," said Adam Applegarth, Northern Rock CEO. That didn't stop lines forming outside some of the firm's branches, with savers keen to pull their pounds out.

But with more than $200 billion in assets, and a share price in freefall, a takeover is another potential outcome. "Who would be doing it?" asks Justin Urquhart Stewart at Seven Investment Management in London: "Anyone wishing to buy that asset book at discounted value." And further fallout from the squeeze on credit could yet follow in the U.K. Northern Rock rivals Alliance and Leicester and HBoS similarly rely on liquid credit markets, albeit to a degree that's "smaller in magnitude," Collins Stewart's Potter wrote in a research note. Northern Rock, in other words, may not be the last financial institution to find itself in a hard place.