By Jon Menon and Andrew MacAskill

Oct. 7 (Bloomberg) -- A year ago today, Royal Bank of Scotland Group Plc and HBOS Plc were close to collapse, causing a chain reaction that could have ended with riots in U.K. cities, security analysts and economists said.

Bank failures would have forced the government to cancel police leave and deploy troops as the breakdown of the financial payments system threatened the ability of utilities to provide essential services, said David Livingstone, a fellow at the Royal Institute for International Affairs in London, a former adviser to the government’s Cobra crisis response committee.

“You are talking about a situation with mass disorder and panic,” the former Royal Navy officer said in an interview. There would be “riots, pandemonium, everyone fending for themselves.”

Chancellor of the Exchequer Alistair Darling, Bank of England Governor Mervyn King and Financial Services Authority Chairman Adair Turner met at 5 p.m. on Oct. 7, 2008, and readied a 250 billion-pound ($398 billion) rescue for the banks in the 16 hours before they opened for business the following day. In response to a Freedom of Information Act request from Bloomberg News one year on, the Treasury declined to say if it had a contingency plan for the two banks, then or now.

Releasing such information would probably “have a destabilizing effect on financial markets,” damage the government decision-making process and cause commercial harm to the banks involved, the Treasury said in a letter.

“In the current economic climate, economic perception, even if totally misconceived, is important and has the capacity to alter market behavior,” the government said. “To confirm or deny whether or not the information is held, either in relation to the banks mentioned in your request or more generally” would hurt the banks and the U.K.’s economic interests.

‘Catastrophic’ Costs

The crisis last year was the worst Britain had faced in peacetime, Darling told the British Broadcasting Corp. last month. The two banks were not “confident they could get to the end of the day,” on Oct. 7, King told the same program.

“You would have had unmitigated panic and a bank run,” said Tom Kirchmaier, a fellow at the London School of Economics. “People would not have been able to buy bread. The cost to the economy would have been catastrophic.”

RBS and HBOS, then in talks to be taken over by Lloyds TSB Group Plc, had more than 35 million business and individual customers with 475 billion pounds of deposits, 22 percent of the U.K. total, held at about 3,250 branches.

‘Contagious Effects’

“If RBS hadn’t been propped up as it was, in practice it would have been nationalized the following week,” former Bank of England deputy governor John Gieve said in a Bloomberg Television interview. “If RBS, HBOS, Lloyds had gone down, that would have had huge contagious effects throughout the rest of the world.”

The failure of Edinburgh-based RBS and HBOS would have had a domino-effect with customers seeking to take out their deposits from other lenders and causing a wider run on U.K. banks, said Vicky Redwood, an economist at Capital Economics Ltd.

“Trust in the banking system would have completely collapsed” and would have generated civil unrest, said Redwood. “People would have been rushing to take their money out of the other banks and you would have been heading back to the depression era.”

In Iceland, occasionally violent protests erupted for months after the government’s nationalization of Glitnir Bank hf and the country’s two other biggest banks in October. The crisis caused Iceland to become the first western country to seek International Monetary Fund assistance in 32 years. Even so, the banks remained open for business.

Government Rescue

British government rescue packages announced on Oct. 8, 2008, Oct. 13, 2008 and Jan. 19 stabilized the financial system. RBS, HBOS and Lloyds TSB Group Plc accepted a 37 billion-pound government bailout and a further 200 billion pounds was made available by the government to improve liquidity, boost capital and absorb writedowns. The government also pledged to insure 585 billion pounds of toxic assets.

British banking shares rose 1.8 percent in the year from Oct. 13, 2008 to Oct. 5, 2009, according to the FTSE 350 Banks Index. The index has more than doubled since its low on March 9. The FTSE 100 index of leading stocks gained 18 percent in the same period.

Even so, the financial sector “is not out of the woods,” Michael Geoghegan, chief executive officer of HSBC Holdings Plc, Europe’s biggest bank, told investors at a conference organized by Bank of America Merrill Lynch on Sept. 29.

‘Back to Normal’

British banks have only recognized 40 percent of a likely $604 billion in writedowns from 2007 to 2010, and earnings won’t be sufficient to offset this, the IMF said Sept. 30. A sluggish economy and rising unemployment will add to loan losses, it said.

“Trust has returned, but there is too much trust and people are taking risks blindly,” said LSE’s Kirchmaier. “If you look at the market, people assume it is back to normal, but there are huge risks in the system.”

These remain, according to Simon Maughan, an analyst at MF Global Securities Ltd. in London. Banks have yet to cut debt sufficiently after balance sheets expanded rapidly during the boom, while regulatory demands for increased capital are “cosmetic,” he added.

“The problem was way too much money in the system and a demand for yield,” Maughan said. “Very little has changed” and banks may be laying “the groundwork for the next crisis.”

The banking crisis was the symptom of an unsustainable asset-price boom “that began when western monetary authorities began to believe that inflation was dead,” said David Sayer, head of retail banking at KPMG. Restricting bankers’ bonuses won’t be enough to stop it happening again, he said.

The banking industry is now engaged in “a period of significant transformation and change,” HSBC’s Geoghegan said last month. “These changes in themselves, if not sensibly introduced in a rational and unemotional way, may well trigger a further crisis of confidence at this fragile time,” he said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Jon Menon in London at To contact the reporters on this story: Andrew MacAskill in London at
Last Updated: October 6, 2009 19:01 EDT