RBS are doling out £775 million to their competitors. This is a genius move

The European Commission likes playing hard ball. Back in 2009 it decided that a bloated RBS had to sell off its Williams & Glyn unit to meet European Union state aid demands. But after a seven-year hunt for a buyer, RBS abandoned the sale and instead proposed a £775 million fund to help strengthen its competitors. But as it prepares to hand out cash to its rivals next month, RBS is charting a course that could see it sweep the rug from under their feet. While the likes of Monzo, Starling Bank, Revolut, and German-based N26 are fighting hard for personal current accounts, the race for business banking is only

Can Hammond’s Budget make business feel better about Brexit?

‘Uncertainty is draining investment from the UK, with Brexit having a negative impact on eight in ten businesses,’ says Carolyn Fairbairn of the CBI. OK, let’s pause for a chorus of ‘She would say that, wouldn’t she?’ But even if we shade off for ‘scaremongering’, her survey (of 236 firms) is bleak: ‘44 per cent of businesses with contingency plans intend to stockpile goods… 30 per cent intend to relocate production and services overseas… 15 per cent intend to move jobs…’ And I’ve seen no rival surveys that contradict the gist of it. So what can Monday’s Budget do to make business feel better? Suggestions abound, and Chancellor Hammond is

Unilever’s botched retreat from London leaves it more open to hostile bids

Unilever’s abandonment of plans to scrap its Anglo-Dutch corporate structure and leave London is a huge embarrassment for chief executive Paul Polman, whose days in post must surely be numbered. More significantly, it’s a rare demonstration of the power of UK institutional investors (the likes of Aviva, Legal & General, M&G and Schroders) to exercise collective influence in errant boardrooms. The institutions were unpersuaded that the proposed new Dutch-based structure would generate greater value for them from the Persil-to-Marmite conglomerate — and many disliked the idea that Unilever would drop out of the FTSE 100 index, obliging tracker funds to sell their holdings. Polman’s plan was painted by the media

Let’s hope RBS emerges as something worth owning shares in

At last the government has restarted the process of selling its stake in Royal Bank of Scotland. A first £2 billion sale in 2015 (of 5 per cent of the bank’s shares) took place at 330 pence per share, against a purchase price of 502 pence in the 2008 bailout. Those numbers looked so embarrassing for George Osborne that the sell-off file was consigned sine die to a Treasury basement; but now that RBS has returned to a slim profit after nine years of losses, Philip Hammond sold another £2.5 billion tranche on Monday, ahead of what his advisers evidently think will be a weaker stock market after the European summit, but at

Running a bank’s tough. That’s no reason to start handing capital back

A mixed bag of annual results from the big banks. RBS, still 73 per cent owned by the taxpayer, recorded a small profit for the first time since 2008 but took flak for a newly released report on the outrageous behaviour of its Global Restructuring Group, the team that mistreated struggling business customers in the post-crash phase. No wonder chief executive Ross McEwan looked tired, irritable and homesick for New Zealand. Lloyds, having served its time in the sin bin alongside RBS, is now by contrast the sector’s comeback star, with profits up 24 per cent to £5.3 billon (despite another hefty charge for PPI mis-selling) and promises of more

It’s rural customers and the elderly who will be most affected by RBS’s latest closures

On Friday, RBS announced plans to close 259 of its bank branches. That’s a quarter of its outposts. 62 of the closures are Royal Bank of Scotland branches, while the other 197 are NatWest. This isn’t the only announcement of bank closures in the past couple of days, either. Lloyds are also closing 49 branches, and Yorkshire Building Society are closing 13 – but the RBS closures are certainly the most dramatic, and the ones that will affect the most people. Of course, yet again the reason given to the public for these closures is that the bank branches are underused. It’s the standard argument; more customers are using online

Ten years after the banking crisis, the unfairness still stings

Arguably it was Robert Peston’s breathless reporting of trouble at Northern Rock on the evening of 13 September 2007 that kicked off the crisis. The next morning, depositors were queuing round the block and the drama that would almost bring down the global banking system a year later had begun. Looking back after a decade, we can be grateful for the bailout interventions that shored it all up at the moment of cataclysm — but we can also observe the lingering and deep unfairnesses of the longer-term recovery. Ultra-low interest rates that will not rise above inflation anytime soon mean blameless savers face continuing negative returns on cash deposits; yet

Why I’m glad that Unilever saw off predatory robot Kraft Heinz

I was sorry Kraft Heinz’s £115 billion bid for Unilever collapsed so fast — unveiled on Friday, it was dead by Sunday. Not that I saw the aggressor as a worthy potential victor; but a longer battle would have provided great material for column-sermons on good and bad capitalism. Aha, I hear you ask, but which side is which? Unilever is the Anglo-Dutch maker of Dove soap and Magnum ice creams. With its dual headquarters in London and Rotterdam, its multi-layered bureaucracy and its bosses who bang on about social responsibility, it might be seen as a big fat corporate proxy for the European Union — in urgent need of

Will Trump halt the hounding of UK and European banks? Don’t bet on it

President Donald Trump is demolishing his predecessor’s legacy as fast as he can sign executive orders, but one thing for which the Obama administration will be remembered is its zest for imposing fines on UK and European banks. In a flurry of Department of Justice activity ahead of the transfer of power, Deutsche Bank agreed to pay $7.2 billion and Credit Suisse $5.3 billion for misleading investors in mortgage-backed securities before 2008, while Deutsche also copped a $630 million penalty (from UK as well as US regulators) for alleged money-laundering on behalf of Russian clients. Meanwhile, Royal Bank of Scotland set aside another $3.8 billion, making a total provision of

Portrait of the week | 1 December 2016

Home Paul Nuttall, aged 39, was elected leader of the UK Independence Party. He said: ‘I want to replace the Labour party and make Ukip the patriotic voice of working people.’ Theresa May, the Prime Minister, was rebuffed by Angela Merkel, the Chancellor of Germany, and by Donald Tusk, the President of the European Commission, when she proposed settling the status of British and EU expatriates even before Article 50 was invoked. She made another attempt in talks with Beata Szydlo, the Prime Minister of Poland. There was some interest in a note photographed on papers being carried after a meeting in Downing Street by Julia Dockerill, an aide to Mark

Money digest: ‘Marmite gate’ and Germany’s tougher stance on Brexit

One and a half million households, many of them poor families or pensioners, are not on the correct energy tariff for their consumption says the Daily Mail’s This Is Money. The big six power giants – British Gas, EDF, Eon, Npower, Scottish Power and SSE – are overcharging by a net amount of £440 million per year, the paper says. Frank Field MP, who chairs the Commons Work and Pensions Select Committee, has written to the Prime Minister to draw attention to the issue. He said that ‘as a next move in protecting the vulnerable human underbelly of British society, the Prime Minister should take the first available opportunity to

It’s time for Hammond to send a ruthless hit squad into RBS

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

Oil prices will drift down again as Opec fails to get its act together

How many Olympic medals did Opec win? The answer (though I’ll bet no one else has bothered to work this out) is 15, or an average of 1.07 medals per member of the world’s leading oil-producer cartel. That result — boosted, I should add, by the five-medal triumph of the Iranian wrestling team — compares with the now notorious aggregate figure of 325 for the EU, including Team GB’s 67. I highlight the contrast only to make the point that, as power blocs go, resource-rich Opec is piss-poor at managing its affairs to advantage: the indolent leadership of the Saudis (Rio medals: zero) and their permanent stand-off with Iran means

Why not use RBS as an experiment in narrowing the top-to-bottom pay gap?

Theresa May sent a strong message to the corporate world when she criticised the ‘irrational, unhealthy and growing gap’ between the pay of top executives and average workers. Yet what should be a vigorous debate on this topic — about the balance between fairness and the right incentives for optimum performance — never quite takes off. More evidence came to hand this week from the ‘independent non-party’ High Pay Centre: it reports that average pay for a FTSE 100 chief executive last year was £5.5 million, up by 10 per cent on 2014 and a third since 2010, and that the ratio between chiefs’ average total pay and that of

Want to cut top pay, Mrs May? Start with the bank you own

Theresa May sent a strong message to the corporate world when she criticised the ‘irrational, unhealthy and growing gap’ between the pay of top executives and average workers. Yet what should be a vigorous debate on this topic — about the balance between fairness and the right incentives for optimum performance — never quite takes off. More evidence came to hand this week from the ‘independent non-party’ High Pay Centre: it reports that average pay for a FTSE 100 chief executive last year was £5.5 million, up by 10 per cent on 2014 and a third since 2010, and that the ratio between chiefs’ average total pay and that of

My top tip for predicting whether a business is doomed

It’s a useful rule of thumb that any business which reduces its name to its initials is heading for trouble. Having gone that way under Goodwin, RBS almost doubled down last year by becoming the lower-case ‘rbs’, before apparently thinking better of it. British Petroleum became ‘BP’ after its 1998 merger with Amoco, tried to claim a greener image by suggesting that the B might stand for ‘Beyond’, and has never really been stable since. ‘British’, like Scottish, was evidently an unsuitable tag for a global player. Likewise BG, the former exploration arm of British Gas, was an unhappy ship for years before its recent takeover by the robustly unabbreviated

Scrapping RBS’s toxic brand should be a step towards a final break-up

Royal Bank of Scotland is at last about to dump the ‘RBS’ logotype promoted by its fallen chieftain Fred Goodwin, who thought ‘Scotland’ too parochial for a bank with global ambitions, though he was famously keen on royal connections. The wonder is that this decision has taken seven-and-a-half years since the bank was saved by £46 billion of taxpayers’ money.I suppose Goodwin’s successors, now led by Ross McEwan, have had too many other fires to fight, what with losses piling upon losses (first-quarter results twice as bad as last year’s), delays in the spin-off of the Williams & Glyn subsidiary, computer problems, and a looming scandal in the Swiss branch

Portrait of the week | 28 January 2016

Home Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council, prepared a paper on the four areas of concern between Britain and the European Union, as formulated by David Cameron, the British Prime Minister, for the EU to chew on at a summit in February. Nicola Sturgeon, the leader of the Scottish National Party, said that to hold a referendum on the EU in June would be ‘disrespectful’ to elections being held in Scotland. Tony Blair, the former prime minister, said he thought Scotland would leave the Union if the United Kingdom voted to leave the EU. Lord Parkinson, who as Cecil Parkinson was party chairman when the Conservatives won a

Forget China or oil prices. This crash was made in America

If anyone is feeling pleased about the slide on the stock-market today, it is probably Andrew Roberts, the RBS analyst who hit the headlines this week with a note advising everyone to ‘sell everything’. Probably rather sooner than he expected, and before any of his clients even had time to panic properly, prices have started to collapse. Almost every day, there are hefty three digits falls, and pictures editors are running out of their stock photos of despairing traders looking glumly into their Bloomberg terminals. The numbers suggest that a bear market, usually defined as a 20 percent drop off the highs, is now very close. China’s Shenzhen index is

RBS’s note from a crashing plane: wild headline-grabbing or wise advice?

Should anyone take investment advice from Royal Bank of Scotland, the institution which so misread markets before the crash that it required the biggest taxpayer bailout in banking history? Possibly not, but a bulletin from RBS’s research team this week certainly caused a stir by declaring that ‘in a crowded hall, exit doors are small, risks are high’, ‘sell mostly everything… except high-quality bonds’; and finally, ‘for the world: the game is up’. Strong stuff, indeed — and written in such staccato City language that it reads like the last scribbled testament of a passenger in a crashing plane. Behind it is the view that assets boosted by quantitative easing