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British banks received a fillip from parliament today, as the Treasury Select Committee called for “more detailed analysis” of the proposal to ring-fence banks’ retail units from the rest of their operations. Banks have criticised the proposal, made by the Independent Commission on Banking, as saddling them with unnecessary costs and restraining their capacity to lend. Signs of a rethink on the proposal sent British banks’ shares sharply higher.

The rally reversed steep declines following Friday’s EU stress test. Although all four of the British banks in the test passed, some of the details that emerged about the banks’ balance sheets spooked investors. In particular, funding costs soared in the test’s “adverse” scenario—which many analysts, including the EIU, think was not nearly adverse enough. The cost of funding for Barclays, for example, rose almost four-fold between 2010 and 2012 in the test, the largest jump in the 90-bank sample. The other British banks in the sample also saw above-average increases in costs, thanks in part to reliance on wholesale funding sources.

Exposure to fickle wholesale markets is one of the reasons cited in favour of erecting firewalls around universal banks’ retail activities. Any new analysis of the retail ring-fence idea should take the implications of banks’ enduring reliance on short-term interbank markets into account.

The majority of data and analysis at Financial Services Briefing is available only to subscribers. Each week, a small share of content from the service is made available to non-subscribers.

“Straightforward to characterise, but difficult to quantify”. The Independent Commission on Banking (ICB), a group assembled by the British government to make recommendations on regulatory reforms, delivered its interim report on April 11th. “Everyone agrees that we need a much more robust banking system than that of the past decade”, said Sir John Vickers, the ICB’s chairman.

A week after the report’s publication, markets continue to mull the implications of the report, as well as the prospects for British banking in general. Tellingly, the initial rally in many banks’ shares immediately following the release of the report quickly fizzled, with all of the major banks now trading below the levels seen on the eve of the report’s publication

It appears that the UK’s approach to restructuring its banking system will rely on higher capital requirements for retail units and an attempt to engineer a viable “challenger” to the biggest banks from the portfolio of Lloyds Banking Group. Other countries with significant financial centres, like Switzerland, have already gone further on capital requirements while others, like the US, have been stricter on limiting the market share of major players.

It may take years to judge whether regulators can promote a more stable and competitive banking market in the UK. In the meantime, markets have shorter-term concerns.

Read more at Financial Services Briefing: “For better or worse” (April 20th)

The majority of data and analysis at Financial Services Briefing is available only to subscribers. Each week, a small share of content from the service is made available to non-subscribers.

The credit crunch was not kind to British banks. Many of the country’s lenders grew dangerously exposed to overheated property markets, exotic derivatives and flighty wholesale funding sources. When the financial crisis struck, these exposures pushed several banks to the brink (and beyond).

Against this dire background, the latest half-year results from the UK’s largest lenders represent a relatively swift return to health. The country’s biggest banks all reported profits for the first six months of this year. For part-nationalised RBS and Lloyds Banking Group, the profits marked a welcome break from a recent string of losses. For the other large domestic banks—HSBC and Barclays—robust increases in first-half results met or beat analysts’ expectations. The results reinforce the conclusions of the EU’s July stress test, which the British quartet passed comfortably.

Read more at Financial Services Briefing: “Recovery mode” (August 6th)

There are many tools on the web that allow investors to track the value of their portfolios. British taxpayers, now major holders of RBS and Lloyds Banking Group, can turn to two unlikely sources to follow the value of their investments in the beleaguered banks: the websites of the treasury and the National Audit Office.

Yesterday, the treasury published details about the £282bn (US$459bn) in assets it will guarantee from RBS. The bank is on the hook for the first £60bn in losses on the portfolio, with the government footing the bill for any additional write-downs. The treasury says it does not expect losses to exceed £60bn, but anyone willing to trawl through the 20-odd pages of asset inventory can judge for themselves (£34bn in CDSs and CDOs with a “particular high-risk profile” doesn’t sound very promising). And in what has become a common theme, Britain’s asset guarantee covers a large share of loans taken out by foreign borrowers, a politically unappealing outcome.

Asset guarantees comprise only part of the bank bailout. Direct equity injections of nearly £70bn for RBS and Lloyds should make taxpayers particularly interested in the fate of these banks’ shares. Last week, the National Audit Office, a government spending watchdog, published a report that included calculations of the break-even price for the government’s holdings in RBS (50p) and Lloyds (74p). Every 10p rise in the banks’ share prices from these levels adds £9bn to the value of the people’s stake in RBS and £3bn in Lloyds. When the report was written, in late November, the holdings were worth £18bn less than their purchase value. Shares have fallen further since. Maybe it’s best not to check up on the value of this portfolio too often.

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