EUROPEAN COURT OF HUMAN RIGHTS, 10 July 2012 – Garlicki President – Dennis Grainger and others v. the United Kingdom
Bank nationalisation – Shareholders’ rights – Principle of peaceful enjoyment of property – Interference to the right of peaceful enjoyment of property – Right to compensation for the deprivation of property – Fair balance between general interest and individual right – No net positive value of the shares without state support – Policy of avoiding moral hazard – No compensation required
(UK Banking (Special Provisions) Act 2008; Art. 1 of Protocol No. 1 European Convention on Human Rights)
Any interference with the right to the peaceful enjoyment of possessions under Art. 1 of Protocol No. 1 must strike a “fair balance” between the demands of the general interest of the community and the requirements of the protection of the individual’s fundamental rights. In particular, because national authorities are in principle better placed than the international judge to appreciate what is “in the public interest”, the European Court of Human Rights must respect the decisions of the national authorities unless it finds them to be “manifestly without reasonable foundation”. The decision taken in a legislation that the shareholders of a bank should not be entitled to take any value which had been created and maintained only through the provision of State support is far from being “manifestly without reasonable foundation”. Instead, it is clearly founded on the policy of avoiding “moral hazard”, which is at the heart of the principles which regulate the provision of LOLR. Therefore, if the net positive value of a bank is created and maintained only through the provision of State support, in case of nationalisation of the said bank, the shareholders are not entitled to any compensation for the expropriation of their shares (1).
Application no. 34940/10
Dennis GRAINGER and others
against the United Kingdom
The European Court of Human Rights (Fourth Section), sitting on 10 July 2012 as a Chamber composed of:
Lech Garlicki, President,
David Thór Björgvinsson,
Vincent A. De Gaetano, judges,
and Lawrence Early, Section Registrar,
Having deliberated, decides as follows:
The following summary of the facts is based on the applicants’ submissions and the findings of the domestic courts.
- The applicants
- The names of the applicants and their representatives are set out in the attached table. One of the applicants, SRM Ltd Global Master Fund Partnership, is an investment fund incorporated in the Cayman Islands. As a result of transactions between 14 September 2007 and 12 February 2008 it became the largest shareholder in Northern Rock plc, with 48,452,655 shares, amounting to 11.5% of the issued ordinary share capital. Another applicant, RAB Special Situations (Master) Fund Ltd is also an investment company incorporated in the Cayman Islands. It acquired its shares in Northern Rock by transactions between 19 September 2007 and 14 February 2008. By the date of Northern Rock’s nationalisation, it owned 34,444,299 shares, amounting to 8.18% of the issued ordinary share capital. The remaining applicants are individual small shareholders, some of whom acquired their shares on demutualisation; others of whom acquired theirs as employees under an approved profit share scheme or share incentive plan, or other incentive schemes, or by contributions to the company pension fund. Others were small investors who bought their shares on the stock exchange. At the date of nationalisation there were some 150,000 small shareholders.
- The circumstances of the case
- The nationalisation of Northern Rock
- Northern Rock was originally a building society. In 1997 it was converted into a public limited company, listed on the London Stock exchange and authorised to carry on business as a bank. On its demutualisation, shares were issued to its existing depositors. Its core business remained residential mortgage lending. It grew to become the fifth largest United Kingdom mortgage lender and the eighth largest United Kingdom bank.
- Unlike most other banks in the United Kingdom, Northern Rock financed a large part of the loans it made to lenders by borrowing money and by issuing bonds backed by a pool of mortgage loans. As a result of turbulence in the international financial markets, by August 2007 it had become impossible for it to raise sufficient money on the wholesale market. Moreover, the problems in the United States of America associated with the securitisation of subprime mortgages made it impossible for Northern Rock to raise funds by securitising its own mortgage book.
- Northern Rock’s assets, as valued and stated in its balance sheet, exceeded its liabilities. However, because of the impossibility of borrowing in the wholesale financial markets it did not have the liquid funds to pay its current liabilities and to repay depositors, and so it could not pay its debts as they fell due.
- On 13 August 2007 Northern Rock alerted the Financial Services Authority to its liquidity problems and its doubts over the sustainability of its situation. On 3 September 2007 the Treasury, the Bank of England and the Financial Services Authority (“the Tripartite Authorities”) agreed in principle to provide financial support, as a “Lender of Last Resort” (“LOLR”), to allow Northern Rock to maintain liquidity. It was considered that Northern Rock’s problems constituted a genuine threat to the stability of the financial system, with a risk of serious disturbance in the wider economy.
- LOLR Assistance is made under procedures set out in a Memorandum of Understanding between the Tripartite Authorities, which provides:
“14. In exceptional circumstances, there may be a need for an operation which goes beyond the Bank’s published framework for operations in the money market. Such a support operation is expected to happen very rarely and would normally only be undertaken in the case of a genuine threat to the stability of the financial system to avoid a serious disturbance in the UK economy. If the Bank or the FSA identified a situation where such a support operation might become necessary, they would immediately inform the other authorities and invoke the co-ordination framework outlined in paragraph 16 below. Ultimate responsibility for authorisation of support operations in exceptional circumstances rests with the Chancellor. Thereafter they would keep the Treasury informed about the developing situation, as far as circumstances allowed.
- In any such exceptional circumstances, the authorities’ main aim would be to reduce the risk of a serious problem causing wider financial or economic disruption. In acting to do this, they would seek to minimise both moral hazard in the private sector and financial risk to the taxpayer arising from any support operation.”
The principles on which LOLR is provided by the Bank of England were further explained in a lecture given at the London School of Economics in 1993 by the then Governor of the Bank. In particular, he underlined that LOLR is designed not to protect the individual bank or its shareholders, but to safeguard the financial system as a whole from contagion, thereby preventing damage to the wider economy.
- On 13 September 2007 the BBC broadcast leaked information about the bank’s liquidity problems which, over the following three days, led depositors to withdraw GBP 4.45 billion, nearly 20% of Northern Rock’s retail deposits.
- On 14 September 2007 the Tripartite Authorities authorised the Bank of England to provide LOLR support, in the form of a secured loan at a premium rate of interest. On 17 September 2007 the Chancellor of the Exchequer announced that the Tripartite Authorities would guarantee the safety of all existing deposits in Northern Rock. By 9 October 2007 the loan provided by the Bank of England was virtually exhausted. To prevent the company from collapsing, a further loan was put in place, which was repayable on demand, again at a premium rate of interest and secured against all assets of the company.
- The Government had duly informed the European Commission of the measures it had taken in relation to Northern Rock. On 5 December 2007 the Commission issued a decision. The Commission concluded that the measures taken by the Government between 17 and 20 September 2007 and those announced on 9 October 2007 constituted non-notified State aid pursuant to Article 87(1) of the Treaty establishing the European Community. However, the measures were compatible with the Common Market as rescue aid pursuant to Article 87(3)(c), and the Commission raised no objection to them. Nonetheless, it informed the Government that:
“The Commission expects your authorities to respect their commitment to communicate to the Commission, not later than 17 March 2008, a credible and substantiated restructuring plan or a liquidation plan or a proof that the aid measures granted have been repaid in full and that the guarantees have been terminated.”
- On 21 January 2008 the Treasury announced that the preference of the Tripartite Authorities was to find a private sector solution for Northern Rock. However, if no suitable private sector solution could be found, the Government would bring forward legislation which would empower the Treasury to take Northern Rock into temporary public ownership, since it was not considered that it would be in the public interest to allow the bank to go into administration. If Northern Rock were taken into public ownership, the legislation would provide for the assessment by an independent valuer of compensation payable to the former shareholders. The principles for assessing compensation, which would be set out in the legislation brought forward, would reflect:
“the principle that the Government should not be required to compensate shareholders for value which is dependent on taxpayers’ support and the fact that public sector ownership would be an alternative to an administration of the company. Accordingly, the compensation would be assessed by the valuer on the basis, among other things that all financial assistance to Northern Rock from the Bank of England or HM Treasury (including HM Treasury’s existing guarantee arrangements) had been withdrawn and no other financial assistance (apart from Bank of England assistance on its usual terms through standing facilities or open market operations) were made available by them to Northern Rock.”
- By 17 February 2008 there were two private sector proposals for the future of Northern Rock. However, both involved the continuation of public financial support to the company, and the Government did not consider that either would deliver sufficient value for money for the taxpayer. The Chancellor of the Exchequer therefore announced that legislation would be brought forward to take Northern Rock into a period of temporary public ownership.
- The power to nationalise Northern Rock was conferred on the Government by the Banking (Special Provisions) Act 2008 (“the 2008 Act”), which was passed into law on 21 February 2008. The nationalisation of the company was effected by the Northern Rock plc Transfer Order 2008, which was made on the same date and came into force on 22 February 2008. It transferred the shares in the company to the Treasury Solicitor as nominee of the Treasury at the beginning of 22 February 2008.
- The total amount lent by the Bank of England to Northern Rock as at 31 December 2007 was some GBP 27 billion. In addition, the Treasury had assumed contingent liability under guarantees of some GBP 29 billion. As at 31 March 2008, GBP 24.1 billion of the loans remained outstanding.
- Immediately before nationalisation, the market price of Northern Rock shares was 90 pence, giving a market capitalisation of approximately GBP 379 million.
- The statutory instrument making provision for the determination of the compensation payable to the former shareholders of Northern Rock was the Northern Rock plc Compensation Scheme Order 2008 (“the Compensation Scheme Order”: see paragraph 26 below), made on 12 March 2008. It required the independent valuer, when calculating the amount of compensation to be paid by the Treasury, to assume that Northern Rock was unable to continue as a going concern and was in administration.
- On 2 April 2008, the European Commission informed the United Kingdom that it had decided to initiate the procedure laid down in Article 88(2) of the EC Treaty in relation to State aid potentially incompatible with the common market. However, it did not consider that the proposed compensation scheme was incompatible, for the following reasons:
“The decision of 5 December 2007 already established that Northern Rock is a firm in difficulty. Its situation has not improved since then. In particular, if all the rescue aid measures were withdrawn, the firm would immediately exit the market. ...
The Commission has accordingly decided that the measures implemented on 18 December 2007 are compatible with the EC Treaty and that if the shareholders are only compensated on the basis of an independent valuation of the company without any State support, the purchase of the shares from existing shareholders does not constitute State aid.”
- On 7 December 2009 the Valuer wrote to the former shareholders informing them that his provisional view was that, applying the statutory assumptions, there would be no residual value in the company and therefore no compensation would be payable.
- The domestic judicial review proceedings
- The applicants challenged the assumptions required by the Compensation Scheme Order by way of judicial review proceedings in the Administrative Court. They contended that, contrary to Article 1 of Protocol No. 1 to the Convention, the assumptions imposed on the Valuer failed to strike a fair balance; gave rise to procedural unfairness, since the Valuer could not take into account all relevant facts; and wrongly prevented the regulatory failures of the State from being taken into account in the assessment of compensation.
- The Divisional Court dismissed the proceedings on 13 February 2009 ( EWHC 227 (Admin)). It took the view that the statutory assumptions imposed on the Valuer reflected the fact that, but for the support provided by the Bank of England, Northern Rock would have been unable to pay its debts as they fell due and would have had to cease carrying on business. The court further held that its function was one of review: to determine whether the State had exceeded its margin of appreciation. It held that the margin of appreciation in this case was narrower than it had been in the cases ofJames and Others v. the United Kingdom, 21 February 1986, Series A no. 98;Lithgow and Others v. the United Kingdom, 8 July 1986, Series A no. 102; and Mellacher and Others v. Austria, 19 December 1989, Series A no. 169, since the decision to nationalise Northern Rock was made on narrower economic grounds, by comparing the financial benefits to the taxpayer of nationalisation with the alternatives available. However, following Katikaridis and Others v. Greece, 15 November 1996, Reports of Judgments and Decisions 1996‑V, the court considered that the relevant test was whether the determination under challenge was “manifestly without reasonable foundation”, and it did not consider that the Compensation Scheme could be so condemned. Moreover, there had been no procedural unfairness and Northern Rock’s problems were due to the failures of its managers, rather than the State’s lack of regulation.
- The applicants’ appeal to the Court of Appeal was dismissed on 28 July 2009 ( EWCA Civ 788). The Court of Appeal held that the Government support accorded to Northern Rock from September 2007 onwards had constituted a “Lending of Last Resort” (“LOLR”) operation, carried out in the context of macro-economic policy, strictly and exclusively for the protection of the banking system as a whole and not in the interests of Northern Rock or its shareholders. As with all LOLR support, it was always intended to be a short-term operation. The decision to take the company into public ownership was a strategic exercise of Government policy, intended to preserve for the sake of the national economy the benefits of the LOLR operation at the least possible cost to the taxpayer. In these circumstances, the margin of appreciation available to the State had to be wide. The court should only interfere if it were to conclude that the State’s judgment as to what was in the public interest was manifestly without reasonable foundation, which was not the case here. LOLR assistance would not have been provided if support had been available on the market and nationalisation was only carried out because no commercial entity was prepared to acquire Northern Rock except on terms that the Government continued to provide support and carried the risk of default. There was no evidence to support the applicant’s allegation that the Government were motivated by profit. The purpose of the statutory assumptions was to put the shareholders in the position they would have occupied had no LOLR support been provided. If the assumptions produced a nil value for the shares, this was only because the business was shown to be worthless without the support put in by the Government and there was nothing in the assumptions to prevent the Valuer from attaching a premium value to Northern Rock’s loan book and other assets.
- The applicants were refused further permission to appeal by the Supreme Court on 16 December 2009.
- Relevant domestic law
- The Banking (Special Provisions) Act 2008
- The 2008 Act conferred power on the Treasury to make an order transferring securities issued by an authorised United Kingdom deposit‑taker to the Treasury’s nominee. By virtue of section 2(1) read with section 2(2) of the 2008 Act, the power was exercisable by the Treasury if it considered it desirable to do so for either or both of the following purposes:
“(a) maintaining the stability of the UK financial system in circumstances where the Treasury consider that there would be a serious threat to its stability if the order were not made;
(b) protecting the public interest in circumstances where financial assistance has been provided by the Treasury to the deposit-taker for the purpose of maintaining the stability of the UK financial system.”
- Section 5 required the Treasury to make a scheme for determining the amount of any compensation payable by the Treasury to persons who held the securities immediately before they were transferred. Section 5(4) read as follows:
“(4) In determining the amount of any compensation payable by the Treasury by virtue of any provision in an order under this section, it must be assumed –
(a) that all financial assistance provided by the Bank of England or the Treasury to the deposit-taker in question has been withdrawn (whether by the making of a demand for repayment or otherwise), and
(b) that no financial assistance would in future be provided by the Bank of England or the Treasury to the deposit-taker in question (apart from ordinary market assistance offered by the Bank of England subject to its usual terms).”
“Ordinary market assistance” was defined in subsection (5)(b) and did not include the financial support that had been provided to Northern Rock since September 2007.
- The nationalisation of Northern Rock was effected by the Northern Rock plc Transfer Order 2008 made under the 2008 Act. It came into force on 22nd February 2008, and transferred all the shares in Northern Rock to the Treasury Solicitor as nominee of the Treasury with effect from the beginning of that date.
- The Northern Rock plc Compensation Scheme Order 2008
- The Compensation Scheme Order 2008 gave effect to the compensation scheme set out in the Schedule to the Order (“the Compensation Scheme”). It required:
“The amount of compensation payable to a person [to] be an amount equal to the value immediately before the transfer time of all shares in Northern Rock held immediately before the transfer time by that person”.
- The Compensation Scheme contained provision for the appointment of an independent valuer to assess compensation and for any person dissatisfied with his determination of compensation to refer the matter to the Financial Services and Markets Tribunal.
Paragraph 6 of the Compensation Scheme provided:
“6. In determining the amount of any compensation payable by the Treasury to any person in accordance with paragraphs 3 to 5, it must be assumed (in addition to the assumptions required to be made by section 5(4) of the Act (compensation etc. for securities transferred etc.)) that Northern Rock –
(a) is unable to continue as a going concern; and
(b) is in administration.”
- The applicants complained that the statutory assumptions imposed on the Valuer, and the resultant lack of compensation for shareholders following the nationalisation of the company, were a breach of the Government’s obligations under Article 1 of Protocol No. 1.
- Article 1 of Protocol No. 1 provides as follows:
“Every natural or legal person is entitled to the peaceful enjoyment of his possessions. No one shall be deprived of his possessions except in the public interest and subject to the conditions provided for by law and by the general principles of international law.
The preceding provisions shall not, however, in any way impair the right of a State to enforce such laws as it deems necessary to control the use of property in accordance with the general interest or to secure the payment of taxes or other contributions or penalties.”
- The applicants’ submissions
- The applicants complained about the requirement, imposed by statute, for the Valuer to assume that all Government financial support had been withdrawn from Northern Rock; that no such support would ever again be provided; that Northern Rock was unable to continue as a going concern; and that Northern Rock was in administration. They contended that these assumptions inevitably resulted in the former shareholders receiving no compensation in respect of the nationalisation, despite the fact that Northern Rock shares were trading at GBP 0.90 immediately prior to the announcement of nationalisation and its market capitalisation was just over GBP 379 million. It was true that Northern Rock had suffered temporary liquidity problems as a result of the unprecedented market circumstances prevailing towards the end of 2007, and that the Government had stepped in to prevent it going into administration. However, when a person takes action to preserve a perishable asset that would otherwise be destroyed, he is entitled to an equitable reward, but not to take ownership of the asset.
- Moreover, the assumptions did not allow the Valuer to take into account the State’s responsibility as regulator for causing the situation in which the nationalisation was deemed necessary. The Bank of England had been criticised for failing to adopt a sufficiently proactive response to the credit squeeze, in contrast to the central banks of other countries. For example, the Treasury Select Committee, in the fifth report of its 2007-2008 Session, entitled “The run on the Rock”, observed that the Bank of England, the European Central Bank and the Federal Reserve had each pursued a different course of action in response to the financial turmoil of August 2007. The report found that the Bank of England had been alone in taking no contingency measures in August, because of its concern to avoid “moral hazard” (that is, the risk that financial institutions would take on greater liquidity risks based on an assumption that the Bank of England would provide assistance in the event of a crisis). In addition, the applicants submitted that the Financial Services Authority, which was responsible for authorising and supervising Northern Rock, had failed to provide sufficiently rigorous supervision and had also failed to take adequate steps to address “short selling” of Northern Rock shares, which had contributed to the loss of confidence and panic among depositors. The applicants contended that these failings by State bodies were highly relevant to the question whether the Compensation Scheme struck the right balance under Article 1 of Protocol No. 1, since the Government should not be able to profit from its own failings.
- In the applicants’ submission, the Government had acquired an asset which they had recognised to be of substantial value and from which they expected to realise a substantial cash surplus on resale. It was manifestly disproportionate and inconsistent with any notion of “fair balance” for the State to deny compensation to the shareholders on the grounds of their provision of financial support where the Government: (i) confidently expected the loans to be repaid; (ii) did not expect the guarantees provided to be called upon; (iii) had received contractually agreed fees as well as interest at a penal rate; (iv) recognised that Northern Rock had substantial value at the time of nationalisation; and (v) expected to make a substantial profit from selling it. Even if the provision of support to Northern Rock entailed some cost or risk to the taxpayer, and even if the State were entitled to recompense for that beyond the specific fees, it was clearly disproportionate for the State to benefit from the full value of Northern Rock, leaving nothing for the shareholders, some of whom had lost their life savings. The disproportionality of the Compensation Scheme was further demonstrated by the fact that two other major United Kingdom institutions, the Royal Bank of Scotland and HBOS, were treated entirely differently by the Government barely a year after the nationalisation of Northern Rock. These institutions were provided with over GBP 60 billion of financial support, on a secret basis, with the deal structured so as to avoid nationalisation and so as to leave shareholders with some, albeit reduced, value.
- The applicants contended that it would have been fairer, and would have struck the right balance under Article 1 of Protocol No. 1, to have left it to the Valuer to exercise his own judgment as to the value of Northern Rock shares at the date of nationalisation without being bound by any assumptions. This would also have complied with the requirements of procedural fairness under Article 1 of Protocol No. 1, because had the Valuer not been fettered by the assumptions, the shareholders could have put before him all the relevant evidence. If, as the Government contended, it was reasonable to allow for the fact that the company had had financial assistance, then the Valuer should have been trusted to take that into account. Given the constraints on the Valuer, it was difficult for the applicants to accept that the assumptions reflected the reality of the situation rather than a way of ensuring that the shareholders received nil return and the Government made a profit.
- The Court’s assessment
- Relevant general principles
- As the Court has reiterated on a number of occasions (see, for example,Scordino v. Italy (no. 1) [GC], no. 36813/97, § 78, ECHR 2006‑V and the cases cited therein), Article 1 of Protocol No. 1 contains three distinct rules: the first rule, set out in the first sentence of the first paragraph, is of a general nature and enunciates the principle of the peaceful enjoyment of property; the second rule, contained in the second sentence of the first paragraph, covers deprivation of possessions and subjects it to certain conditions; the third rule, stated in the second paragraph, recognises that the Contracting States are entitled, amongst other things, to control the use of property in accordance with the general interest. These rules are not “distinct” in the sense of being unconnected: the second and third rules, which are concerned with particular instances of interference with the right to the peaceful enjoyment of property, are to be construed in the light of the principle laid down in the first rule.
- The Court observes that it is well established in its case-law that any interference with the right to the peaceful enjoyment of possessions must, indeed, strike a “fair balance” between the demands of the general interest of the community and the requirements of the protection of the individual’s fundamental rights (seeScordino, cited above, § 93). The concern to achieve this balance is reflected in the structure of Article 1 of Protocol No. 1 as a whole, including therefore the second sentence, which is to be read in the light of the general principle enunciated in the first sentence. In particular, there must be a reasonable relationship of proportionality between the means employed and the aim sought to be realised by any measure applied by the State, including measures depriving a person of his possessions (ibid.).
- Because of their direct knowledge of their society and its needs, the national authorities are in principle better placed than the international judge to appreciate what is “in the public interest”. Under the system of protection established by the Convention, it is thus for the national authorities to make the initial assessment both of the existence of a problem of public concern warranting measures of deprivation of property and of the remedial action to be taken. Here, as in other fields to which the safeguards of the Convention extend, the national authorities accordingly enjoy a certain margin of appreciation (seeJames and Others, cited above, § 46). Moreover, a wide margin is usually allowed to the State under the Convention when it comes to general measures of economic or social strategy (see, for example,James and Others, cited above, § 46; and National & Provincial Building Society, Leeds Permanent Building Society and Yorkshire Building Society v. the United Kingdom, 23 October 1997, § 80, Reports 1997-VII). Because of their direct knowledge of their society and its needs, the national authorities are in principle better placed than the international judge to appreciate what is in the public interest on social or economic grounds, and the Court will generally respect the legislature’s policy choice unless it is “manifestly without reasonable foundation” (ibid.).
- Compensation terms under the relevant legislation are material to the assessment of whether the contested measure respects the requisite fair balance and, notably, whether it does not impose a disproportionate burden on the applicants. It is clear that Article 1 of Protocol No. 1 does not guarantee a right to full compensation in all circumstances (seeJames and Others, cited above, § 54;and Scordino, cited above, § 94). Legitimate objectives in the “public interest”, such as those pursued in measures of economic reform or measures designed to achieve greater social justice, may call for less than reimbursement of the full market value. Furthermore, the Court’s power of review is limited to ascertaining whether the choice of compensation terms falls outside the State’s wide margin of appreciation in this domain (see James and Others, cited above, § 54). The Court has, however, previously indicated that the taking of property without payment of an amount reasonably related to its value will normally constitute a disproportionate interference and a total lack of compensation can be considered justifiable under Article 1 of Protocol No. 1 only in exceptional circumstances (see The Holy Monasteries v. Greece, 9 December 1994, § 71, Series A no. 301‑A; and The former King of Greece and Others v. Greece [GC], no. 25701/94, § 89, ECHR 2000‑XII). Such exceptional circumstances arose in the case of Jahn and Others v. Germany [GC], nos. 46720/99, 72203/01 and 72552/01, § 117, ECHR 2005‑VI, where the Court found that in the unique context of German reunification, the lack of any compensation for an expropriation of property did not upset the “fair balance” that had to be struck between the protection of property and the requirements of the general interest.
- Application of these principles to the facts of the case
- It was not contested by the parties to the domestic litigation that the applicants’ shares in Northern Rock Plc were possessions for the purposes of Article 1 of Protocol No. 1 and that by reason of the Transfer Order they were deprived of those possessions. It was also accepted that the nationalisation of Northern Rock was in the public interest and in accordance with law. Before the domestic courts and in their application to this Court, the applicants’ only challenge was to the Compensation Scheme, and in particular the assumptions which the Valuer was required to make, which they contended failed to strike the fair balance required by Article 1 of Protocol No. 1.
- The Court of Appeal took the view that the Government should be afforded a wide margin of appreciation in this case, since the impugned action arose in the context of macro-economic policy. The Court agrees that given the exceptional circumstances prevailing in the financial sector, both domestically and internationally, at the relevant time, a wide margin of appreciation is appropriate. It is clear from the material before it that the financial assistance provided by the Tripartite Authorities from 2007 (that is, the LOLR support) was provided with the aim of protecting the financial sector in the United Kingdom from the contagion that might spread to other key institutions if Northern Rock were allowed to fail. The subsequent nationalisation of Northern Rock served the same aim. Like the earlier loans, it was carried out as a last resort, when no viable commercial solution could be found which would have prevented the bank from going into liquidation without continued support from public funds. The Court considers that the Compensation Scheme must be seen as integrally linked to the series of support measures which ended with nationalisation. Throughout the entire process, the Government’s focus was on protecting a key sector of the national economy. In accordance with its case-law, therefore, the Court must respect the decisions of the national authorities unless it finds them to be “manifestly without reasonable foundation”.
- The applicants contend that the statutory assumptions inevitably resulted in the payment of nil compensation to the shareholders. However, like the Court of Appeal, the Court does not find this to be the case. The assumptions required the Valuer to allow for the realities of the situation, namely that Northern Rock had survived only because of the provision of LOLR support and that the Government now sought to bring an end to that support. There was nothing in the statutory assumptions to prevent the Valuer from taking into account the company’s assets when deciding its total net worth. The fact that he found the former shareholders to be entitled to no compensation indicated that, in the light of the events of the preceding few months, the company’s assets did not offset its losses.
- The applicants further submit that the statutory assumptions prevented the Valuer from giving due weight to the fact that Northern Rock’s problems were in part attributable to regulatory failures on the part of State institutions, such as the Bank of England and the Financial Services Authority. The applicants have not established that the State authorities acted negligently in their dealings with Northern Rock or, more generally, in their handling of the financial turmoil of the Autumn of 2007. Nor have they established that Northern Rock’s liquidity problems were caused by any act of the State authorities. Moreover, even assuming that the applicants could establish some fault on the part of the State, again the Court does not see that the terms of the Compensation Scheme would have prevented the Valuer from taking the equitable approach they advocate if he had considered it appropriate.
- As noted above, the Court accepts that the Government’s objective throughout its dealings with Northern Rock during this period was to protect the United Kingdom’s financial sector. As part of this policy, they aimed to maintain depositor confidence in the safety of placing money with banks. On the other hand, however, they also sought to avoid encouraging the management boards of other financial institutions from making bad business decisions on the assumption that the State would provide a safety net. There was no obligation under domestic law for the Tripartite Authorities to provide LOLR support, and no duty owed by the State to the shareholders to protect their investments in Northern Rock. Nor does Article 1 of Protocol No. 1 impose such a positive obligation on the State; indeed, the Court has stressed on many occasions that this provision cannot be interpreted as imposing any general obligation on the Contracting States to cover the debts of private entities (seeKotovv. Russia [GC], no. 54522/00, § 111, 3 April 2012). The LOLR support enabled Northern Rock to continue trading for a few more months but the company was not able during this short period to restructure in such a way as to enable it to survive without support. In the Court’s view, the decision taken in the legislation that the former shareholders of Northern Rock should not be entitled to take the value which had been created by the Bank of England’s loan was far from being “manifestly without reasonable foundation”. Instead, it was clearly founded on the policy of avoiding “moral hazard”, which is at the heart of the principles which regulate the provision of LOLR. In the Court’s view, it was entirely legitimate for the State authorities to decide that, had the Northern Rock shareholders been permitted to benefit from the value which had been created and maintained only through the provision of State support, this would encourage the managers and shareholders of other banks to seek and rely on similar support, to the detriment of the United Kingdom economy.
- It follows that the applicants’ complaint under Article 1 of Protocol No. 1 is manifestly ill-founded and therefore inadmissible, pursuant to Article 35 §§ 3 (a) and 4 of the Convention.
For these reasons, the Court unanimously
Declares the application inadmissible.
Lawrence Early Lech Garlicki
1. Introduzione - 2. Il caso e la sentenza in commento - 3. La normativa di riferimento e gli orientamenti della dottrina e della giurisprudenza - 3.1. Le specificità delle banche e della loro crisi - 3.2. Le misure adottate per fronteggiare le crisi bancarie. In particolare, le misure che incidono sugli assetti proprietari della banca senza il consenso del debitore - 3.3. I diritti degli azionisti nel contesto di una crisi - 4. Il commento - 4.1. La sentenza della Corte Europea e il suo impatto sistematico - 4.2. Recenti sviluppi e possibili scenari futuri in relazione alle imprese bancarie - NOTE
L’attuale crisi finanziaria mondiale ed i numerosi casi di crisi aziendali che si sono verificati negli ultimi anni hanno offerto molte occasioni per ripensare al rapporto fra diritti degli azionisti e procedure concorsuali, con particolare riferimento al diritto che i primi vantano sulle partecipazioni sociali della società insolvente .
Alla necessità di risolvere in forma efficiente la crisi di singole società o di gruppi di società, e in particolare di società bancarie, i legislatori dei singoli Paesi hanno per lo più risposto con interventi legislativi di natura straordinaria, di rado intervenendo sulla disciplina generale delle procedure concorsuali.
In particolare, al fine di introdurre speciali poteri per la risoluzione delle crisi, che consentissero in primo luogo la continuità aziendale delle imprese bancarie a fini di tutela della stabilità del sistema, i singoli legislatori nazionali hanno talvolta fatto ricorso a meccanismi in grado di incidere sugli assetti proprietari delle banche, facendo così emergere il tema dei rapporti fra assetti proprietari e procedure concorsuali (speciali).
Più precisamente, al fine di dotare l’impresa di adeguate risorse patrimoniali, a fronte dell’incapacità o della riluttanza dei soci a immettere nuovi capitali nell’impresa, in taluni casi i singoli legislatori nazionali hanno introdotto norme che incidevano sugli assetti proprietari dell’impresa, sia intervenendo direttamente sulla proprietà dei titoli di partecipazione, sia intervenendo sul capitale sociale. Ciò, da un lato, ha consentito la prosecuzione dell’attività d’impresa, ma, dall’altro, ha generato numerosi contenziosi con i soci, in relazione ad asserite espropriazioni dei loro diritti .
Al cuore del tema vi è un possibile contrasto fra forma giuridica e sostanza economica: l’assenza di valore del patrimonio sociale, gravato da debiti superiori all’attivo, consente o no di superare il diritto di proprietà sulle partecipazioni sociali? Il caso risolto dalla Corte Europea dei Diritti dell’Uomo che qui si commenta ha risposto in senso affermativo.
Lo scopo della presente nota, dopo aver dato conto del caso concreto su cui si è pronunciata la Corte Europea dei Diritti dell’Uomo (di seguito la “Corte”), è indagare tali [continua ..]
2. Il caso e la sentenza in commento
2. Il caso e la sentenza in commento
Per meglio comprendere la sentenza in commento, è opportuno riportare brevemente i fatti che hanno preceduto il contenzioso conclusosi con la suddetta decisione.
Durante la recente crisi finanziaria, uno fra i primi e più noti casi di crisi bancaria ha coinvolto l’istituto inglese Northern Rock.
La banca in questione cominciò ad avere alcune difficoltà finanziarie nella prima metà del 2007, ma la situazione peggiorò sensibilmente soltanto a partire dall’agosto di quell’anno, provocando l’adozione di una sequenza di interventi pubblici . Nel settembre 2007 la Banca d’Inghilterra venne autorizzata a fornire liquidità a Northern Rock, ma tale intervento non riuscì ad arrestare il deterioramento delle condizioni finanziarie della banca e, anzi, in quello stesso mese si verificò una “corsa agli sportelli”. Tali eventi determinarono la concessione di altri aiuti pubblici, il rilascio di garanzie statali e un (fallito) tentativo di cessione della banca ad un altro soggetto operante sul mercato. Nonostante i predetti interventi, la banca non era più in grado di operare e la sua crisi aveva assunto rilevanza tale da costituire una minaccia per la stabilità finanziaria del Regno Unito. Al fine di fronteggiare questa minaccia, il governo britannico decise di procedere infine alla nazionalizzazione di Northern Rock, espropriando gli azionisti senza corrispondere loro alcun indennizzo, ancorché le azioni della società mantenessero ancora un positivo valore di mercato.
La nazionalizzazione venne realizzata in base a una normativa emanata d’urgenza, il Banking (Special Provisions) Act del 2008 (poi confluito nell’organico Banking Actdel 2009, tuttora in vigore), il quale aveva introdotto nell’ordinamento britannico una serie di strumenti specifici per la gestione delle crisi bancarie, poi complessivamente noti come Special Resolution Regime .
Così premessi, in estrema sintesi, i fatti che hanno dato luogo al contenzioso sul quale si è pronunciata la Corte, è necessario precisare che la sentenza in commento non ha ad oggetto la legittimità della nazionalizzazione di Northern Rock , bensì solo il mancato pagamento di un indennizzo agli azionisti della banca a fronte dell’esproprio da essi [continua ..]
3. La normativa di riferimento e gli orientamenti della dottrina e della giurisprudenza
3.1. Le specificità delle banche e della loro crisi
Come appena accennato, dal momento che il caso e la sentenza in commento riguardano una banca, pare opportuno soffermarsi brevemente sulle peculiarità dell’attività bancaria, che impone la sottoposizione degli enti creditizi a specifiche ed articolate regole.
La letteratura in materia bancaria, da sempre, ma con rinnovato vigore in seguito alla recente crisi finanziaria, non manca di sottolineare (o di rammentare) le caratteristiche di specialità dell’attività creditizia  che suggeriscono anche la predisposizione di procedure di insolvenza specifiche per i soggetti che la svolgono. In estrema sintesi, infatti, le banche costituiscono una infrastruttura essenziale per il funzionamento dell’economia principalmente perché svolgono le seguenti funzioni: trasferiscono le risorse dai risparmiatori agli investitori ed ai consumatori; assicurano il funzionamento dei sistemi di pagamento e costituiscono i canali di trasmissione della politica monetaria.
Proprio a causa del fatto che le banche svolgono queste funzioni che sono cruciali per l’economia nel suo complesso, fino a pochi anni or sono, in Italia ma anche in altri Paesi , il settore bancario era caratterizzato “dalla proprietà pubblica e da una concezione dell’attività creditizia come pubblico servizio” . A prescindere dalla proprietà pubblica, la natura dell’attività tipicamente svolta dalle banche ha una rilevanza collettiva ed è quindi naturale che, anche adesso, esse siano sottoposte ad una regolamentazione intrisa di connotati pubblicistici . In ogni caso, si tratta di soggetti sottoposti ad una regolamentazione talmente ampia (inclusa una disciplina speciale in caso di crisi) e ad una vigilanza così penetrante che difficilmente potrebbero essere paragonate ad imprese operanti in altri settori .
La disciplina speciale a cui in molti Paesi sono sottoposte le banche in caso crisi non si pone necessariamente in contrasto con la disciplina prevista per le altre imprese e, anzi, ne riprende molti principi. Tuttavia, a differenza delle procedure concorsuali ordinarie, l’obiettivo essenziale delle procedure di insolvenza delle banche non si rinviene nell’obiettivo prioritario di tutela dei creditori (oppure nella massimizzazione del recupero di questi), bensì nella tutela della stabilità del [continua ..]
3.2. Le misure adottate per fronteggiare le crisi bancarie. In particolare, le misure che incidono sugli assetti proprietari della banca senza il consenso del debitore
Le considerazioni svolte nel precedente paragrafo implicano che gli strumenti per la gestione delle crisi bancarie possano differire da quelli delle altre imprese commerciali. In particolare, ragioni di interesse pubblico giustificano soluzioni che normalmente non sarebbero consentite, dato che, per un verso, le attività essenziali della banca (definite anche come “funzioni critiche” ) devono essere mantenute in tutti i casi in cui costituiscono una infrastruttura essenziale per il sistema finanziario nel suo complesso; e, per altro verso, sono necessari strumenti per la soluzione della crisi dell’impresa bancaria che consentano di intervenire in via preventiva e più rapidamente di quanto avviene nelle ordinarie procedure concorsuali , al contempo minimizzando i costi della crisi bancaria sia per i creditori, sia per i contribuenti .
È per questo che, oltre alla predisposizione di procedure concorsuali speciali, taluni ordinamenti nazionali consentono alle autorità statali coinvolte a vario titolo di porre in essere operazioni molto incisive, che hanno consentito di intervenire sugli assetti proprietari, giungendo perfino alla nazionalizzazione di talune banche, come nel caso di Northern Rock .
Dato questo contesto e alla luce dei salvataggi bancari posti in essere durante la recente crisi finanziaria, nell’ambito dell’Unione europea è iniziato il lungo percorso finalizzato all’approvazione di una direttiva con l’obiettivo di armonizzare le normative nazionali in tema di crisi di impresa bancaria  e di fornire al tempo stesso alle autorità nazionali strumenti per un’efficiente gestione di tali crisi, consentendo, a determinate condizioni, perfino interventi sugli assetti proprietari dell’ente creditizio, laddove ciò si renda necessario per la salvaguardia del sistema finanziario nel suo complesso.
Alcune considerazioni ulteriori riguardo al tema sopra accennato saranno svolte più avanti (§ 4.2). Tuttavia, in quest’ottica, pare opportuno anticipare fin da ora che due categorie di strumenti consentirebbero un intervento da parte delle autorità pubbliche sugli assetti proprietari dell’impresa bancaria, senza il consenso del debitore (amministratori o azionisti). Si tratta di:
i) strumenti che consentono l’esproprio delle partecipazioni sociali dei singoli azionisti, [continua ..]
3.3. I diritti degli azionisti nel contesto di una crisi
La disciplina delle procedure concorsuali ha tradizionalmente avuto ad oggetto il solo patrimonio della società, e non invece, nei casi in cui il debitore aveva forma societaria, gli assetti proprietari dell’impresa in crisi.
Nel momento in cui i singoli legislatori nazionali hanno deciso di intervenire sugli assetti proprietari delle imprese in crisi, come nel caso della sentenza qui in commento, o laddove il legislatore comunitario ha iniziato un percorso volto all’approvazione di una disciplina ad hoc per la risoluzione delle crisi bancarie sono emersi limiti evidenti alla discrezionalità del legislatore. Tali limiti sono costituiti dai diritti degli azionisti, riconosciuti sia dalla CEDU (e dalle disposizioni normative contenute nelle Carte costituzionali dei singoli Stati membri), sia dall’ordinamento dell’Unione europea .
In particolare, da un lato, il legislatore nazionale deve rispettare i principi contenuti nella CEDU e nelle disposizioni delle Carte costituzionali nazionali. Dall’altro lato, nei Paesi facenti parte dell’Unione europea ogni intervento del legislatore nazionale sulla struttura di un’impresa costituita in forma di società per azioni deve tener conto dei principi posti dalle direttive in materia, e in particolar modo dalla II direttiva CE del 13 dicembre 1976 in materia di società (77/91/CEE), così come riformata dalla direttiva 2012/30/UE del Parlamento europeo e del Consiglio del 25 ottobre 2012 (d’ora in poi, Direttiva). Fra le disposizioni normative, rilevanti ai nostri fini, merita una particolare menzione l’art. 29 della Direttiva stessa che ha sostituito, mantenendone la formulazione, l’art. 25 della direttiva 77/91/CEE , per il quale «gli aumenti di capitale sono decisi dall’assemblea».
Di seguito saranno esaminate le predette disposizioni normative in forma necessariamente sintetica.
In primo luogo, con riferimento alla CEDU e alle altre disposizioni di rango costituzionale, diritti degli azionisti (e quindi limiti all’attività del legislatore) si rinvengono in due diversi gruppi di norme: (a) disposizioni – quali l’art. 42 della Costituzione italiana , l’art. 17, comma 1, della Carta dei diritti fondamentali dell’Unione europea , nonché l’art. 1 del Primo Protocollo della [continua ..]
4. Il commento
4.1. La sentenza della Corte Europea e il suo impatto sistematico
In base all’analisi svolta nei precedenti paragrafi e in linea di principio, l’indennizzo a fronte di un esproprio è un diritto degli azionisti che non può essere negato neanche di fronte ad una crisi di una banca. È per questo che, come accennato, la stessa normativa britannica prevede esplicitamente che, in caso di espropriazione delle azioni o di altre operazioni sul capitale che abbiano il medesimo effetto, si debba procedere alla valutazione dell’indennizzo eventualmente spettante agli azionisti di una banca in crisi .
In pratica, tuttavia, sembra remota la possibilità per gli azionisti di ricevere un indennizzo in caso di nazionalizzazione di una banca in crisi.
Infatti, la nazionalizzazione di una banca in crisi è l’ultima (drastica) opzione a cui normalmente si ricorre soltanto quando sono stati esauriti, o non sono più impiegabili, tutti gli altri mezzi a disposizione .
Se invece questi tentativi falliscono, il fatto di non riuscire a trovare nessuno disposto a comprare la banca potrebbe già indicare che, in realtà, essa potrebbe non aver più alcun valore sul mercato, dato che i suoi debiti hanno raggiunto un ammontare tale che nessuno è più disposto ad acquistarla .
Solo se queste azioni sono state tentate, ma sono fallite, o se la gravità della situazione impone reazioni più rapide, il governo procede alla nazionalizzazione della banca in crisi . Questo intervento statale determina un costo elevato a carico dei contribuenti e non sembra tanto il frutto di una libera scelta, quanto piuttosto una misura imposta dalla necessità di fronteggiare il rischio di destabilizzazione dell’intero sistema finanziario da parte di una banca in grave crisi.
Se è così, come è avvenuto nel caso di specie, il perito – che debba tener conto degli aiuti ricevuti dallo Stato nella valutazione del patrimonio sociale, al fine di quantificare l’indennizzo da corrispondere agli azionisti – finirà quasi sempre per non riconoscere alcun indennizzo a favore degli azionisti medesimi.
Infatti, alla luce di quanto precede, nel momento in cui si verificano le condizioni che determinano la necessità di procedere a una nazionalizzazione, la partecipazione degli azionisti difficilmente potrà avere un valore positivo.
Ma anche qualora la banca abbia [continua ..]
4.2. Recenti sviluppi e possibili scenari futuri in relazione alle imprese bancarie
Lo scenario delineato finora potrebbe profondamente mutare in ragione dell’approvazione della direttiva in materia di risanamento e risoluzione delle crisi degli enti creditizi e delle imprese di investimento. Si è già accennato infatti che nell’ambito dell’Unione europea è stata elaborata una proposta di direttiva  ed è ormai quasi concluso il lungo percorso finalizzato all’approvazione della stessa.
La proposta di direttiva in questione mira a fornire molteplici strumenti per la risoluzione delle crisi bancarie, al fine di perseguire l’obiettivo primario della stabilità finanziaria. Tale risultato viene tuttavia raggiunto non mediante l’utilizzo di fondi pubblici, ma allocando il costo della riorganizzazione in primis sugli azionisti e sui creditori della società (invece, appunto, che sui contribuenti) . La proposta di direttiva prevede infatti la possibilità di adottare provvedimenti che garantiscano la continuità dell’attività non solo mediante un trasferimento coattivo dell’azienda o di specifici asset (strumentario tipico e tradizionale delle procedure concorsuali), ma anche mediante interventi sulla struttura proprietaria della banca in crisi. Tali strumenti potranno infatti consentire «(…) to transfer shares in, or assets, rights or liabilities of, a failing institution to another entity such as another institution or a bridge institution, powers to write down or cancel shares, or write down or convert liabilities of a failing institution (…)» .
In particolare, pare meritare grande attenzione (e ne ha già ricevuta anche oltreoceano ) il c.d. bail in. Si tratta di uno strumento che consente, a determinate condizioni, perfino interventi sugli assetti proprietari dell’impresa bancaria, laddove ciò si renda necessario per la salvaguardia del sistema finanziario nel suo complesso. In estrema sintesi, infatti, lo strumento in questione, quando entrerà in vigore, consentirà di operare ricapitalizzazioni, riduzioni di capitale e conversione di crediti in capitale .
Ciò considerato, posto che le considerazioni svolte nel presente paragrafo debbono necessariamente essere generali, dal momento che il testo della proposta di direttiva non è ancora stato approvato, sembra interessante [continua ..]