The Great Debate UK
Willie Walsh has no incentive to be bullish right now. He has had British Airways on cold rations since joining as chief executive-designate four years ago, and another set of tough union negotiations looms.
However, a poor set of annual results shows that — even had he wanted to — there is no disguising the pension situation: dire and getting worse.
The accounting deficit widened by 1.2 billion pounds last year. Even that picture is reckoned to be too optimistic.
Sir John Ritblat, founder of British Land, was a believer in “buy and hold.” Fortunately for shareholders, Stephen Hester, brought in as chief executive ahead of Ritblat’s retirement in 2006, took a more active view of asset management.
Raymond Baer is splitting the family firm. He has noticed the conflict between the private bank and asset manager. Or, as he puts it, “both entities will benefit from their sharpened focus and the absence of competing interests, thus acting pro-actively in the best interest of all of our stakeholders”.
Investors valued Bank of Ireland’s stock at 12 cents apiece in March, placing it firmly in the 99 percent club — those that had lost nearly all their value. After the results on Tuesday, they were changing hands at almost 12 times that level. If anything, the outlook for the Irish economy has worsened since then.
Sir Victor’s Blank cheque has finally bounced. Drawn on the Bank of Gordon, it looked like a dodgy piece of paper from the start, and now it has been sent back, marked “Refer to Drawer”.
Shares in Lloyds Banking Group rose in relief that someone, anyone, has finally agreed to take the rap for the disastrous takeover of HBoS, at the behest of the UK government, during last year’s financial panic.
Dazzled by the prospect of a market position in the UK which the competition authorities would never have allowed in normal times, Blank and his chief executive Eric Daniels failed to look their gift horse in the mouth, and discovered it was really a broken-down old nag.
The acquisition obscured the fact that the Black Horse itself was hardly in shape, and even without the handicap of HBoS, would almost certainly have been obliged to limp to the government for help. That is as much Daniels’ fault as Blank’s, and he will have to pay once a new chairman has been found.
This will not be easy. It would surely be too venal, even for this government, to impose finance minister Alistair Darling on the suffering shareholders, once he finds himself out of a job next year.
Lord Sandy Leitch, the Labour luvvie elevated to deputy chairman at the weekend, might fancy his chances, but his background is in insurance. The fashion for bank chairman who know nothing about banking has, mercifully, been blown away by the crisis.
More sensibly, Lord Mervyn Davies seems to have little to do since he quit Standard Chartered Bank <STAN.L> for the administration, while Doug Flint from HSBC would be a fine, and popular choice as chief executive if he could face the challenge. He’s a Scot, which would also play well in the Brown bunker.
However, John Kingman, the civil servant in charge of UK Financial Investments, the government’s fig leaf covering its 43 percent stake in the bank, had signally failed to endorse Blank’s re-election at the forthcoming annual meeting. Perhaps he is showing signs of independence after all.
Philip Hampton, who was ousted as finance director from Lloyds five years ago for urging a cut in the dividend, would have been the ideal candidate. Unfortunately, he was tapped to chair RBS last January.
Belgians may like a tasty cheval-burger with their frites, but they ought to desist from flogging a dead one. The European Commission has thrown out an attempt to have the sale of Fortis Bank in Belgium to BNP Paribas cancelled, but the rebels are now threatening to take their case to the European Court of Justice.
Barclays’ hasty deal to sell iShares in April served its purpose. The $4.4 billion price-tag boosted the bank’s capital, thereby allowing it to dodge the government’s insurance scheme. Barclays should now seek better terms on the deal.
– Margaret Doyle is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are her own –
Barclays thinks the insurance it has against its “impaired assets” is worth twice as much as RBS seems to believe. It’s hard to see how both could be right.
On May 7, Barclays said that it expects to get 76 percent of any claim made against its “monoline” insurers. The following day, RBS said fat chance — we think it’s 35 percent. They may not have the same insurers, but they are also coming from the problem from different angles.
Unlike Barclays, RBS is already attached to the government teat. Because RBS has taken a huge capital injection from the state, chief executive Stephen Hester had much less to lose than his counterpart at Barclays John Varley in admitting that things are looking grim.
For Barclays, it makes more sense to take losses only as fast as you earn enough to cover them.
Moreover, RBS has also already agreed to join the government insurance scheme. RBS said that around 75 or 85 percent of the 4.9 billion pound headline hit in the first quarter was to assets that will end up in the government’s Asset Protection Scheme (APS). RBS has to take 19.5 billion in losses before it calls on the government purse. These numbers show that it has already chalked up around 4 billion of that first loss.
Moreover, that huge figure excludes 755 million pounds of trading asset write-downs. That means the bank’s total losses for the quarter were 5.6 billion pounds.
RBS’s 51-page report also reveals the details of another banking farce. It has 31 billion pounds-worth of bonds outstanding. The market is sceptical about RBS’s ability to repay this, and has marked the bonds down accordingly. In this quarter alone, that market write-down equates to more than 1 billion pounds. RBS has taken this as a “profit”.
Hester himself rightly flags up that there are more headwinds to come. There will be further losses as the recession deepens.
Net interest margins are likely to remain compressed. While the banks may get away with what they term asset pricing (higher interest charges on our loans), it will be a while — if ever — before their funding costs return to pre-crunch levels.
Longer term, regulators will demand that banks set aside more capital against the loans that they make, thus depressing equity returns.
Hester may think there is mileage in being frank. But he should be careful. After all, RBS has not agreed final terms on the APS with the government. Having seen these numbers, it may decide that RBS should be forced to pay harsher terms.
from The Great Debate:
By Margaret Doyle
Barclays has avoided the dead hand of state shareholding and, on Thursday's evidence, it looks as though it will escape completely.
Barclays Capital has enjoyed a storming first quarter -- so good it is hard to see it being sustained -- which has allowed the bank to make more big write-downs and still report a 15 percent increase in pre-tax profit.
Eugene Sheehy told investors last October that he’d rather die than raise equity. Luckily the Allied Irish Banks boss, who has announced his imminent “retirement”, won’t have to make good on that pledge.