The Great Debate UK
By Chris Hughes
The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.
The latest competition review of UK banking should aim to be the last. An antitrust probe in 2000 led to limited price controls after concluding that British lenders made excess profit. There were two more big investigations after the financial crisis. Yet concerns about market inefficiencies persist. That suggests the Competition and Markets Authority should do something radical this time.
The CMA says it is minded to conduct a comprehensive investigation of UK banking later this year. The industry is at least as oligopolistic as it was 14 years ago. Barclays, HSBC, Lloyds Banking Group and Royal Bank of Scotland have 77 percent of personal accounts and 85 percent of small-business banking.
So-called challenger banks have emerged from disposals by Lloyds and RBS as mandated by the European Commission. But the market has become more concentrated, especially in mortgages, after Lloyds swallowed Halifax and Bank of Scotland and several former building societies collapsed. Customer dissatisfaction is high. Yet just 4 percent of SME customers and 3 percent of personal customers switch accounts annually. The banks say things are already changing for the better. Twas ever thus.
“Don’t cry for me, RBS” could certainly be the lament being sung by Stephen Hester, outgoing CEO of bailed out Royal Bank of Scotland, after the shock announcement that he will have left the bank by the end of this year. CEOs of banks come and go; however, the government stake in RBS makes this CEO particularly important.
There are two things that make Hester’s departure fascinating: firstly, the fact that the RBS board along with the Treasury have concentrated on how a new leader is needed to privatise the bank. Secondly, the fact that Hester doesn’t seem to want to go.
During an interview with BBC Radio 4 less than 24 hours after the announcement was made, Hester admitted that he wanted to take the bank through its privatisation process “for me that would have been the end of the journey.” However, that was not meant to be, and he said he “understood” that “new blood” at RBS was a good thing.
By Matt Scuffham, UK Banking Correspondent.
The government should hand most of its shares in Royal Bank of Scotland and Lloyds Banking Group to the public, an influential political think tank says, in what would be the country’s biggest privatisation.
The proposal would enable 48 million taxpayers to apply for shares at no initial cost and with no risk attached, the think tank said. A ‘floor price’ would be set and taxpayers would make a profit on any rise in the shares above that level.
–Sam Hill is UK Fixed Income Strategist at RBC Capital Markets. The opinions expressed are his own.–
The return of RBS and Lloyds to the private sector is moving up the agenda but as the UK government prepares to set out the strategy for privatisation, the spotlight will, once again, fall on the gilt market and the public finances.
– Laurence Copeland is a professor of finance at Cardiff University Business School. The opinions expressed are his own. –
Supporting Ireland to the tune of a few billion quid must look like a no-brainer to the British Government. We should not make the same mistake as the Germans, who managed to get the worst of both worlds over Greece – forced by the scale of their bank exposure to support Greece, but providing the money with ill will, causing bitterness rather than gratitude – and now repeating the error in the Irish case.
It's just not fair. Those beastly banks are snatching the bread from our mouths, chorus three of London's mid-cap broking houses. "Taxpayer supported banks" (do they by any chance mean Lloyds and Royal Bank of Scotland?) are strong-arming the clients of Panmure Gordon, Numis and Evolution into steering lucrative rights issue underwriting their way.
The trio are so upset at the sight of this lovely business disappearing that they have written to Paul Myners, the government's Minister for the City, to complain about "anti-competitive behaviour." It's "stifling competition in the capital markets." Anecdotal evidence from twitchy businesses in thrall to their banks suggest they are right.
Shares in Lloyds Banking Group are worth 150 pence apiece, according to the analysts from Royal Bank of Scotland, who think the shares offer "a compelling restructuring opportunity" around today's 95 pence.
Lloyds, say the brokers, is going to recover sufficiently to pay a nominal dividend next year, and something quite substantial in 2011, thanks to margin expansion, cost control and normalising bad debts.
Controversy and running RBS go hand in hand. Stephen Hester replaced Fred Goodwin as chief executive of RBS and is now in hot water himself over his incentive pay deal. The chief executive of the state-controlled bank could be paid 9.6 million pounds over three years if the share price (currently 44p) reaches 70p. However, he seems to have so little faith in the shares reaching that level that he has offloaded 1,264,565 shares since last November at prices between 28.5p and 48p, yielding just over 464,000 pounds.
When unveiling first half results last week Hester asserted that "We have a strong plan in place that I believe can get us to where we need to be by 2013," which presumably includes recovery in a share price still languishing more than 90 percent off its peak.
Sir Win Bischoff appears to relish a challenge. His brief spell as chairman of Citigroup was spent resisting regulators who wanted to break up the bank. If the veteran banker takes over as chairman of Lloyds Banking Group, his first fight will be with competition authorities in Brussels. This is one battle where it would be better if Sir Win did not live up to his name.