'Third bidder' for HBoS revealed

A THIRD potential bidder is looking at HBOS in the hope of snatching the bank away from the proposed takeover deal with Lloyds TSB, an MSP said today.

The SNP's Alex Neil said the latest party to show interest in Scotland's oldest bank was a based abroad that did not have a major high-street presence in the UK.

This would protect jobs in the UK, as there would be no overlap of roles as would happen if Lloyds merged with HBOS.

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It would also allow the bank to keep its headquarters in Edinburgh.

The Scotsman newspaper reported the firm had made preliminary inquiries about HBOS, but was not as far through the process as the other potential bidder, which also emerged over the weekend.

Mr Neil, a member of the Scottish Parliament's finance committee, said: "It's an excellent bid. The last thing that Scotland needs is a Lloyds TSB takeover of HBOS.

"Bringing in someone from outside the UK means the number of jobs will be kept and the corporate headquarters will be in Edinburgh, not in London."

He added: "I'm optimistic, and the fact there's the possibility of a total of three bids, means the Lloyds TSB deal is probably not now going to go through."

The disclosure follows news of another potential rival bid which could scupper the tie-up between HBOS and Lloyds TSB.

It emerged that Scottish Secretary Jim Murphy has had talks with Jim Spowart, the founder of HBOS-owned Intelligent Finance, about the possibility of a group putting together an alternative offer for HBOS.

The Edinburgh-based banking giant has already agreed its 12 billion merger with Lloyds, but Mr Murphy and Mr Spowart had further talks over the potential deal at the weekend.

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Mr Spowart has also suggested his rival bid would keep more jobs and decision making functions in Scotland.

He told the BBC: "It would keep the bank more or less intact, I can't guarantee the situation on jobs but I don't think there would be a job cull at the same level as what is currently estimated or anticipated by Lloyds TSB."

Mr Murphy confirmed he had had talks with Mr Spowart and said: "I have spoken to the Treasury and if there is a second serious bid then the Treasury would be happy to talk to them."

But other politicians said questions had to be asked about whether Mr Murphy had disclosed confidential information.

Scottish Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon told the BBC: "If the Secretary of State did divulge confidential information about a possible alternative bid then that's a very serious matter indeed.

"I do think serious questions have to be asked. I think there are questions and I think the matter does merit investigation."

An estimated 17,000 HBOS jobs are based in Scotland and it is feared thousands will be lost if the merger with Lloyds TSB goes through.

As many as 15,000 to 20,000 could reportedly go in total across the two groups, with hundreds of branches also at risk of being axed.

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Prime Minster Gordon Brown yesterday said all bids would be treated equally, but highlighted the bank's difficult position when the Government and Lloyds TSB got involved.

He told the Scotsman newspaper: "I think the important thing is that people are free to bid for HBOS, but we have got to recognise where it was – in a position where there was only one choice about rescuing it. Only one company had come forward at that time.

"We have invested 17 billion into buying shares in the new entity. I do think people have got to remember that if we had not acted a few weeks ago, HBOS would have fallen altogether."

He added: "Of course, we will look at every offer. That is part of the process of shareholders sorting out what the future is."

Troubled HBOS has also revealed it is expecting further writedowns of up to 5 billion when it updates the market this week.

The bank warned last month that its profits were being squeezed by bad debts and asset value markdowns, while it was also suffering from increased funding costs in stricken wholesale money markets and falling property prices.

The possibilities of new bids have emerged after Friday's official Government approval for Lloyds TSB's planned merger with HBOS.

Overruling competition concerns raised by the Office of Fair Trading, Business Secretary Peter Mandelson said the public interest of "preserving the stability of the financial system" outweighed any potential anti-competitive effects.

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Lord Mandelson said: "I am satisfied that on balance the public interest is best served by allowing this merger to proceed without a reference to the Competition Commission."

The Government said on intervening in the merger case that it had to consider the wider confidence in the banking system and HBOS's "systemic importance" to the UK banking system.

But the merger has come under fire in Scotland, where there are concerns of job losses and a negative impact on the Scottish economy.

Earlier this week Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond met Lloyds TSB bosses in London to lobby for Scottish interests should the merger go through.

A spokesman for Mr Salmond said: "If any new bid or management team emerges for HBOS, the First Minister will approach that in exactly the same way he approached the Lloyds TSB bid, which is making the positive case for Scotland and making sure that those involved see the value of retaining jobs and decision making in Scotland.

"Any bid has to be judged against what is in the best interests of Scotland in terms of jobs, decision-making and competition."

Lloyds unveiled its proposed rescue of smaller rival HBOS in mid-September.

The deal would create far and away the biggest British bank with nearly a third of the UK mortgage market, more than 300 billion of deposits and about 3,000 branches.

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Chancellor Alistair Darling confirmed on news of the deal that the Government would waive competition requirements to ensure it went through, saying it was needed to shore up the financial system.

HBOS had seen its shares suffer devastating falls amid concerns over the bank's future in the days leading up to the deal announcement.

It has been hit hard by the credit crunch, revealing a 72% plunge in profits for the first half of the year after making a 1.1 million writedown on investments.

The group also said it had seen a 36% leap in bad debt charges as consumers and businesses struggled with repayments and falling house prices.

HBOS is turning to the Government for 3 billion under its part-nationalisation scheme, having already asked shareholders for 4 billion in a rights issue earlier this year.