How safe is Santander UK? – What I really think…

How safe is Santander UK? – What I really think…

How safe is Santander UK? – What I really think…

Spanish bank Santander’s had its credit rating downgraded and understandably some are asking questions about its UK arm. I woke up this morning to see I’d been quoted in a few newspapers on this – as can happen when small snippets are taken from larger conversations – they didn’t quite reflect the entirety of what I think, so I thought I’d bash out a blog to explain more…

A couple of the press quotes do imply I’m saying Santander is safe. Actually, I wouldn’t say something as blunt one way or the other about any bank, as bank solvency isn’t my subject.

What I was saying, is I wanted to reassure people that if you’ve under £85,000 in any fully regulated UK bank, like Santander, your cash is fully protected (as are sole traders and small limited companies – see Biz savings safety). Let me take you through it…

1. Is your money guaranteed by the UK government?

The most important thing to understand is if you save with Santander in the UK, it is for all intents and purposes a UK bank, fully regulated by the FSA and protected by the Financial Service Compensation Scheme (FSCS). In technical terms, if you have savings with Cahoot and Abbey they’re just sub-brands of Santander UK, so all three share one lot of protection.

So let’s examine what would happen in the unlikely event of a fully UK regulated bank going bust…

The UK government (via the FSCS) would be in charge of sorting it out – all money saved in fully UK regulated bank accounts is protected up to £85,000 per person, per institution. This, it is now said, would be paid out within 7 days for most cases, 20 days if it’s complex. This new shorter time period has never been tested, but the last time the FSCS needed to pay out it was relatively speedy.

For those with money in ISAs or current accounts, that’s all part of the same thing (ie, you’re protected up to £85,000 in total for all three), and if a bank were to go bust and you had an ISA with them, the way it has worked before is you get a certificate saying it’s ISA cash, so you can use the certificate to put your money into another ISA (ie, it wouldn’t count as using this year’s allowance, it’d count as a transfer of a past allowance).

So in practical terms, if you’ve less than £85,000 then your money is protected so there is no problem. If you’ve more, then as I always suggest for all banks, it’s worth spreading the cash in different institutions in £85,000 lumps to keep it safe

See the Safe Savings guide for full help on this – and answers about what to do if you’ve saving and debts in one bank etc.

It’s arguable too that if you think you’d ever need access to cash at speed, ie, within the 7 day FSCS period, then splitting amounts below £85,000 is a safe precaution to mitigate the risk of all your money being locked-up at once.

Now, do note I described Santander as a “fully UK regulated bank”, but don’t think that means all bank accounts in the UK have the same level of protection as it.

Unlike Santander, some European banks, including ING Direct, opt for the passport exemption of the FSCS regulations – which in effect means in the event one of those went bust, you’d be reliant on the Dutch, not the UK government to pay out your compensation.

2. How safe is money in Santander UK?

We’re being told by Santander that its UK bank is ring-fenced from its Spanish parent. In other words, the Spanish bank owns shares in the UK bank, but its cash and operations are ring fenced.

Now I have no way of knowing this, and haven’t checked it out as it’s not my bag, but assuming it’s true (and we must assume it is, as if it wasn’t the Financial Services Authority (FSA) would be coming down on it like a tonne of bricks for saying so) then problems at the Spanish bank shouldn’t impact its UK arm.

As for how stable the UK bank is, well most commentators seem pretty strong on it, though again that’s not our forte so please read articles from This Is Money or the BBC for more info.

3. Why are a few councils withdrawing cash?

The most important thing to understand is that while money saved by consumers is protected, money invested by councils and large businesses isn’t, so in the unlikely event even a fully UK regulated bank went bust, they wouldn’t get their cash back.

So during the Icelandic bank collapse, while no UK savers lost money as it was protected and paid out by the government, many councils and institutions use more complex ways of savings (ie, we’re not talking just cash in accounts here) and were exposed.

This has made some adopt an ultra-cautious stance and they are relying on credit ratings to help set their policies. I suspect there are some tick-box exercises going on here (ie, they need to keep cash within banks with certain credit rating settings).

4. What happens if a bank were to collapse?

Now while I don’t want to scaremonger, and think this is an unlikely outcome. Let’s just explore what’d happen in that eventuality, as it may help put some minds at rest.

The only precedent we have here is what happened in 2007-8 when we saw a spate of banks in trouble. The outcome for banks in the UK depended very much on whether they were fully UK regulated (as Santander UK is), not whether they were UK owned.

  • The fully UK regulated banks – including Northern Rock, Bradford and Bingley, and Icelandic owned bank Kaupthing Edge. When they got into trouble, there was no need for them to be bailed out as the government simply moved them away from the troubled banks, ring-fenced the cash in them and kept them operating.

    Eg, Bradford and Bingley savings became part of Santander, and Kaupthing part of ING Direct.

  • UK banks operating without full UK protection– The big one here was Icelandic bank Icesave, which unlike Kaupthing, was passport protected and thus reliant on the Icelandic government for some of the compensation and the UK scheme for the rest (this is because the Icelandic protection was lesser than the UK, and the passport scheme meant you should always get the higher amount).In the end, famously, Iceland didn’t pay up, so the UK’s Financial Services Compensation Scheme stepped in and paid out, and not just the protected amount, but all UK savers got all of their money back (only those who’d saved offshore, outside UK protections lost out).

Now my suspicion, or perhaps guess is a better word, is that if any fully UK protected bank went bust now the government would try and simply move its operations or sell its savings book – by far the most preferable option – rather than relying on shelling out enormous amounts of money in compensation.

I would have much greater concern if a bank that didn’t have full UK protection went bust (not that anyone is saying one will) as I doubt we’d again see the situation of the FSCS paying out beyond the compensation limit, and again there is always the worry that if a major foreign regulated bank went bust, it’s likely its government would be struggling and UK savers wouldn’t be a priority.

5. What about mortgages and credit card holders?

If you owe debt to a bank that went completely bust, then you wouldn’t have to pay it back – so the worry here really isn’t pressing. Yet before you smile at the prospect, what actually happens in these scenarios is the bank’s loan book is sold on to someone else.

In that case, while those with fixed or discount mortgage deals won’t see any change as rates are contracted – if you are on the banks standard variable rate – there is a risk it could be increased by the new bank. Yet in the great scheme of things this is a very minor concern.

6. The real danger here

The one major concern about all of this, is an irrational mass panic on Santander UK that sees a run on the bank. Thankfully that hasn’t happened, as there certainly doesn’t seem to be any need for it – and as long as people keep calm and sensible, it shouldn’t happen.

In many ways I wish I wasn’t writing this blog, and debated doing so. While it’s meant to be reassuring, the mere fact I’m saying ‘some people are asking questions’ will scare others into thinking there is a cause for concern which is far from my intent. Yet I have to balance getting the information out to those who are worried, versus inadvertently concerning those who aren’t.

I hope I’ve managed to strike that balance carefully. Certainly I don’t see a pressing need right now for savers with less than £85,000 in the bank to do anything with it (unless the interest rate or service is poor in which case as I always say, ditch and switch). If you’ve more, it’s always a good precaution with any bank to spread it.