RBS Sell-Off Unlikely Until 2018 - Cable
Business Secretary Vince Cable has signalled that the Government is unlikely to sell its stake in Royal Bank of Scotland for another five years.
Mr Cable claimed it was "pretty unrealistic" to expect the bailed-out bank to be back in private ownership before the current parliament ends in 2015.
And the senior Lib Dem went on to suggest that the Government would probably retain its 82% stake for most of the next parliament.
"I don't think it would be sensible for the Government to set a rigid timetable, but given where we start from I think it is pretty unrealistic to think of RBS going back into private ownership this Parliament or probably within five years," he told The Sunday Telegraph.
His comments conflict with remarks by David Cameron, who earlier this year said the holding should be sold "as soon as possible".
RBS chairman Sir Philip Hammond has also suggested the sale process could start as early as next year.
It indicates the two coalition parties will go into the next general election with different visions about how and when RBS will return to the private sector.
The Government spent £45bn on keeping RBS afloat in 2008 in the wake of the financial crisis, buying shares at 502p each. After Friday trading, the price was 325.6p.
The prospect of a lengthy spell in private ownership will increase the pressure on the bank to be broken up.
Assets such as Ulster Bank and the RBS commercial property book, which is worth £63bn, could be hived off and recapitalised separately.
Investment bank Rothschild has been tasked with reviewing whether the 81% state-owned lender should be split into a "good" and "bad" bank.
Mr Cable said: "I think there is a very strong argument for saying that the bank got too big and indeed that was the source of its undoing.
"But we are having to balance the benefits of breaking up the bank (and) the potential benefits for competition (with) the significant costs, particularly in terms of disrupting IT systems.
"My colleagues in the Treasury are doing very detailed work on that cost-benefit calculation, because there is no simple yes or no answer."
Asked if RBS would be better as a UK-focused retail and corporate bank, he added: "The Chancellor and I have the same view about this. We are not nationalists and of course there is an argument for international banking.
"But we do need to have strong UK banks, particularly supporting our business community. At the moment that market does not function well."
If the Government does keep its stake in RBS for longer, it would be able to increase pressure on the bank to lend more.
Speculation about the company's future has intensified after it announced earlier this month that it had returned to profit.
The firm made a half-year pre-tax profit of £1.37bn, compared to a £1.68bn loss in the same period last year, and has now seen its first two quarters of consecutive growth since the crash.