Poor RBS, poor Britain
The latest results from Royal Bank of Scotland show - perhaps even more than its calamitous 2008 figures - quite what a disaster this bank has been for Britain.
The operating loss of £6.2bn for last year was only a marginal improvement from the £6.9bn loss of the previous period.
But perhaps the most chilling numbers are these: we as taxpayers put in £25.5bn of new equity into this bank last autumn, the second instalment of the £45.5bn we have invested in total; but over the past year, the equity of this bank has increased by less than £16bn to £80bn.
So almost £10bn of the £25.5bn we've only just put into RBS has already been wiped out by losses.
Which, I think, is probably the best measure of the degree to which RBS is still haemorrhaging.
Where is the locus of the disease?
It's RBS's hundreds of billions of pounds of poor loans and investments - as shown by a loss of almost £14bn for so-called impairments (loans that the bank can't get back, or investments that have gone wrong).
This is hair-raising stuff. It speaks to a recklessness or incompetence of the banks' previous management that can make hardened hacks like myself almost weep.
So what are we as taxpayers getting for the fortune we've put into RBS?
What we're not getting is oodles of credit funnelled to businesses vital to the UK's economic recovery.
By its own admission, Royal Bank has flunked the government-set target of providing £16bn of additional loans to "credit-worthy" businesses.
It insists that's not as a result of bad faith on its part.
Royal Bank says the money is there to be lent, but that bankable businesses don't want to borrow - or, at least they don't want to borrow enough.
In fact, there has been a £12.2bn reduction to £151bn during the course of the year in the total volume of loans provided by Royal Bank to companies.
These are disturbing figures - not least in the context of the shocking official statistics released this morning on investment by British business, which showed that in the last three months of 2009 business investment fell almost 6 per cent to a level not seen since 1992.
It looks as though - as per Japan in the 1990s - unconfident British companies are choosing to pay down their debts rather than invest for the future.
But even if companies are horses brought to Royal Bank's water, choosing not to drink, there is still a question about whether Royal Bank could be doing more to encourage them to drink.
Managers at Royal Bank know that it's a board imperative to shrink a bloated balance sheet. So it's highly plausible that they're not doing enough - for the health of the British economy - to seek out viable businesses wishing to borrow.
Which goes to the nub of what the rescue of Royal Bank should have been about.
The private view of Mervyn King and those running the Bank of England has been that Royal Bank should have been turned into an instrument of economic policy, compelled to provide specific quantities of loans to industry and households.
The Treasury, however, decided the imperative was to rebuild Royal Bank as a commercial entity as quickly as possible, in the hope that this would allow taxpayers to get their money back from privatisation.
So it has allowed Royal Bank to operate as a more-or-less autonomous entity - as opposed to a potentially useful arm of the state - even though the state owns 84% of it.
So will the Treasury's strategy succeed in getting us our money back?
Investors in general remain unpersuaded.
Royal Bank's share price rose 6% today, because there is at last a declining trend to the rate at which loans are going bad and there's progress in reconfiguring the bank around a profitable core.
But at 38p, the share price is still well below the 50p price at which taxpayers' stake was acquired - so there's a steep hill to climb before this bank can be privatised to get us back our £45.5bn.
That hill could be even steeper if Mervyn King has his way.
The governor has today told the Future of Banking Commission that it is simply not sustainable for banks like Royal Bank - and Barclays - to run highly profitable investment banking operations on the back of tax-payer protected retail and money-transmission operations.
Which is an argument about how to make the financial system more robust and prevent a recurrence of the 2007/8 all-time worst banking crisis.
But if RBS were bifurcated, arguably the parts would be worth less than the whole - and taxpayers would end up deeply and permanently out of pocket.
Now, that might be a price worth paying for financial stability. But it would be a hefty price.