Skip to Content

Any other business

Why Philip Hammond should be getting ready to break up RBS

Also in Any Other Business: the Uber judgment, and the afterlife of a joke

5 November 2016

9:00 AM

5 November 2016

9:00 AM

The new series of The Missing is surely the gloomiest television of the year. But it has nothing on the endless saga of RBS, which seems to use the same disturbing time-shift device: whenever there’s a horrible new plot twist, you have to spot whether we’re in 2008, 2011 or today.

The crippled bank, still 73 per cent state-owned, has lost £2.5 billion in the first three quarters of this year, having just paid out another £425 million in ‘litigation and conduct’ costs chiefly relating to mortgage-backed securities hanky-panky in the US. Since its bailout eight years ago, it has lost considerably more than the £46 billion of taxpayers’ money that was pumped into it, and has never reported a full-year profit. Attempts by chief executive Ross-McEwan, after three years in post, to persuade analysts to focus on the bank’s positive underlying performance, rather than the extraordinary charges that are the legacy of his cursed predecessor-but-one Fred-Goodwin, fall quarterly on stony ground.

The harsh truth is this: if ever there was a company that cried out to be broken up, its operating business either sold to the highest bidder or if unsellable then parked in a ‘bad bank’ to be gradually wound down, RBS is surely it. The parent brand deserves to be buried forever, even if the main subsidiary brands of NatWest and Coutts are still viable and the original Scottish branch network might have a new life under a new (or old) name. But the one serious attempt to sell off a significant piece of the group — the separation of 314 branches into a ‘challenger bank’ under the revived and well-respected name of Williams & Glyn — has turned into the biggest cock-up of all.

The disposal was insisted upon by competition officials in Brussels, to be done by 31 December next year as a condition of the 2008 bailout. Plans for flotation of Williams & Glyn this year were abandoned because it proved too difficult to clone a separate computer platform; ‘restructuring costs’ relating to that and other problems amounted to £301 million in the most recent quarter alone. Next, Santander withdrew as a potential buyer because of incompatibility with its own superior systems; and after a recent second look, the Spanish group withdrew again because the price asked by RBS was too high for the can of worms on offer.


Now the Clydesdale & Yorkshire Banking Group — a hard-nosed operator recently spun off by National Australia Bank — has made a tentative offer, causing its own share price to dip as a result. But RBS says neither this nor any other Williams & Glyn sale can hope to be signed off by the end of 2017. In which case, Brussels may appoint its own ‘trustee’, somehow to force the disposal to completion.

What a farce. Philip Hammond, with none of George Osborne’s baggage to carry on this one, should call for a reappraisal of RBS’s chances of ever returning to the private sector in anything like its present size and shape. If he wants to set a generous time limit, he might say ‘before the opening of Heathrow’s new runway’. But if the expert advice is that the likelihood is close to zero however distant the deadline, he should send in a ruthless hit squad of accountants and liquidators to retrieve whatever value for the taxpayer they can find.

That would at least have some justice to it, since it is what RBS was accused of doing to so many of its struggling business customers during the recession.

New models, new codes

I was only mildly surprised to learn the other day that an old friend of mine —ex-army, mid-fifties, with a day job as a country–house estate agent — had signed up as an Uber driver to give himself a handy second income. What we must learn to call ‘the gig economy’ is simply the way the world is going — and last week’s tribunal ruling in a case backed by the GMB union, that Uber drivers are not self-employed and should be entitled to the Living Wage plus holiday pay and rest breaks, is no more than a forlorn attempt to stand in its way.

I don’t say that either as a free-market ideologue or an ardent Uber user. I’m unreliable as the former; and as for the latter, I’m still a devotee of the traditional black cab, whose drivers’ livelihood I would hate to see destroyed. I say it because, as I wrote recently, the world of work is shifting inexorably towards internet-driven transactional models in which many millions of people are happy to sell their time and skills, and put their cars to use, whenever it suits them and at whatever is the going rate.

But like any form of commerce, the gig economy needs ethical codes — to protect small sellers in what are predominantly buyers’ markets, and to protect individual customers against the risks of transacting with one-man businesses. It also needs collective bargaining mechanisms, organised through online communities. It needs fresh thinking about rights and obligations to match the originality of its apps. It just doesn’t need old-style union and closed-shop interventions which are really motivated by an urge to destroy it.

My bouncing squib

For Mark Carney to have returned to-Canada after five years as Governor, as he originally planned, rather than serving until 2021, might by now have looked like a win for his critics — so adding an extra year, up to the end of Brexit talks in 2019, is a sidestep worthy of Strictly. Meanwhile, I was delighted to find ‘Might it be worth a flutter on Governor Rees-Mogg?’, the punchline of my last item on this subject (22 October), bouncing around the global media. Bloomberg reported ‘serious political magazines’ speculating that backbench Tory MP and Carney critic Jacob Rees-Mogg might be the Canadian’s replacement; the Daily Mail cited-Bloomberg likewise; and the Economist’s Buttonwood columnist delivered a pompous little lecture on ‘how careful one must be’ in a world of 24-hour news and social media. The answer is that they should all read this column more often, and learn to spot the jokes.


Show comments
Close