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Sun 5 Oct 2008 04:00 AM

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Vanishing act

Customers of UK building society Bradford and Bingley ask where's safest as banks continue to vanish.

Vanishing act
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June Dean stood outside a branch of Bradford & Bingley Plc in the northern London suburb of Finchley after taking out $18,000 of her savings, and asked where her money will be safest.

Her bank followed Northern Rock Plc into state ownership last week after credit markets froze up and left it struggling to fund its operations. It joined three other European lenders that were rescued by governments last week.

"I took my money out of Northern Rock and put it in here," Dean, 80, said as she waited on the sidewalk for her husband to collect her in his blue Nissan hatchback. "Now I'm trying to decide which building society will be ruined next."

Chancellor of the Exchequer Alistair Darling promised all customer deposits will be guaranteed, regardless of the UK's $63,300 compensation limit for savings accounts.

The UK's biggest lender to landlords was the last of the so-called building societies that went public under a law introduced by Margaret Thatcher, Finchley's Member of Parliament for 33 years.

By mid-morning, customers bustled around the three cashier- branch sited on a busy main street. Most were retirees clutching bags of shopping, inquiring about the security of their savings.

Some snickered at a sign in the window that advertised a fixed-rate bond as "Fixed, Done, Sorted," while considering moving their savings to Halifax, Abbey National and NatWest, all of them a minute's walk away.

Dean, a Bradford & Bingley customer for about 15 years, said she withdrew the cash because she didn't believe the government would guarantee deposits of more than $63,300.

"It's a sad story but you've got to look after yourself," said the former hairdresser. Nationwide Building Society, still owned by its customers, or the government-owned National Savings & Investments, which also offers bank accounts, would be "more trustworthy" than Bradford & Bingley, she added.

Banco Santander SA said it would pay $1.1bn for Bingley, England-based Bradford & Bingley's 197 branches and $35bn of deposits.

Spain's biggest lender bought another former building society, Alliance & Leicester Plc, for $42.28bn in July and added it to Abbey National, which it acquired for $16.6bn in 2004.

The government's guarantee is limited to one per financial group, so customers with accounts at both Abbey and Bradford & Bingley will only have $63,300 guaranteed rather than $126,500 they had covered before the takeover.

"With all the umbrella groups, you're running out of places to put your money," said Elsa Guintini, 70, who was waiting for the queue to shorten before asking about the safety of her savings.

Ian Hunter, a 51-year-old builder, said he holds a joint savings account with his 85-year-old mother.

"My mother's really stressed-out at the moment because she's living on her savings," he said. "I was going to put some in the Abbey, but because what we've got in the Abbey and here will be over $63,300, the balance will have to go into NatWest." NatWest is a unit of Royal Bank of Scotland Group Plc.

Unlike savers, the government has offered no guarantees to shareholders. Bradford & Bingley offered customers shares when it went public in 2000, and collectively they owned 12 percent of the bank, more than any institutional investor, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

"I think there should be some sort of a campaign to get our money back," said Norman Hanison, a 64-year-old accountant and shareholder.

"I'm a bit anti-building societies when they become Plcs. They tend to become irresponsible."

This feature is courtesy of Bloomberg.

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