Northern Rock's Shares Tumble

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Niall Carson / AP / PA

People queue outside the Northern Rock headquarters in Dublin, Ireland

Monday morning is never a quiet time for a Main Street bank. At branches of Northern Rock, a British lender, the lines outside extend even further than usual. But it's not exactly welcome business. Savers flooding the Newcastle-based bank on Monday joined the thousands to have withdrawn their cash from Northern Rock in recent days. So far, customers have emptied the bank of around $4 billion, or 8% of its deposit base.

Why the panic? Late Thursday, it emerged that the Bank of England had agreed emergency credit for 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.

Northern Rock's problem: Its modest savings business compared to its mortgage lending arm means it leans on those 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 third in Monday morning trading (they'd already fallen by a quarter on Friday). But Northern Rock is still unlikely 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 last week. 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. "We are a well capitalized, solvent and viable business," Northern Rock CEO Adam Applegarth told the BBC early Monday.

But with more than $200 billion in assets, and a share price in freefall, a takeover is increasingly likely. "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." Lloyds TSB, another major U.K. lender, could well figure among any suitors to emerge in the coming weeks. It's understood to have been in talks with Northern Rock about a deal just days before the Bank of England rescue. If there's no appetite for taking it on whole, Northern Rock could be broken up. And should no credible bids be forthcoming, it may even be forced to wind up.

Further fallout from the squeeze on credit could yet follow in the U.K. Northern Rock's 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 Friday. But the anxiety's not limited to Britain. Spooked investors dumped shares in Spanish, French and German banks Monday. Northern Rock, in other words, may not be the last financial institution to find itself in a hard place.