UK bank shares: not for widows or orphans

No-one earning their bonuses right now.

The half yearly reporting season for UK-headquartered banks is almost upon us.

Following nine years of record profits, UK-based but Asia-Pac focused Standard Chartered is likely once again to be the strongest sector performer. It reports on 1st August and no major surprises are expected. StanChart’s shares remain the strongest performer of the UK banks; as of this morning, StanChart’s share price has fallen by a mere 10.8 per cent in the past 12 months.

The day before on 30 July, HSBC reports its first half profits. Notwithstanding all the understandable hullabaloo over its extensive anti-money laundering failures, the market is likely to be in forgiving mood. HSBC’s share price, in the past 12 months, is down a relatively modest 14 per cent.

The reporting season kicks off with Lloyds Banking Group (LBG) on Thursday. Expect to hear positive noises about profits growth in 2013 and earnings being boosted in 2014 as a result of the Project Verde sell off having been scaled down in terms of assets sold. LBG’s share price, by the by, is down a whopping 35.6 per cent in the past 12 months.

Barclays will report on Friday and will attract a great deal of attention, following its role in the LIBOR scandal and the departure of Bob Diamond. It may even report an increase in underlying profits of up to 10 per cent year-on-year in the six months to end June. The plunging share price of Barclays seems to have played little more than a peripheral role when it has come to determining bonuses at Barclays. In the past year alone, the Barclays’ share price is down by a whopping 33.6 per cent.

Bringing up the rear, in more ways than one (share price down by 45.4 per cent in the last 12 months), Royal Bank of Scotland reports on 3 August. RBS continues to hemorrhage money in Ireland via its Ulster Bank operation. It remains very hard to foresee RBS returning to profit in 2012. The IT shambles earlier in the summer plus media rumours of an involvement in the LIBOR scandal, means that good news relating to RBS is some way off. There will be analysts that suggest that RBS’ share price has now sunk so low  - down from £3.63 to £1.98 in the past year - that it represents an attractive punt.  That may well be the case: but it is not one for widows or orphans.

Just in case any of the UK banks dare to suggest that a collapse in bank share prices is a disease afflicting banks around the world and that they really are earning their bonuses, don’t believe them.

Two of the largest US-based banks – US Bancorp and Wells Fargo – have enjoyed strong double-digit share price growth in the past year; Westpac and National Australia Bank have also shown a rise in their share price while Canada’s largest lender, Royal Bank of Canada’s share price is flat.

Meantime, the results have been released today of the latest UK Customer Satisfaction Index (UKCSI) by the Institute of Customer Service. 

In the banking sector, the UKCSI shows – yet again – that first direct ranks top. With a certain degree of predictability, the Coop Bank ranks second.

The survey will really deserve a greater degree of comment if and when first direct and the coop do not come out at the top of the poll of 26,000 customers.

For the record, Yorkshire Bank ranked third, just ahead of Nationwide and HSBC in fourth and fifth places respectively.

London at night, Photograph:Getty Images.

Douglas Blakey is the editor of Retail Banker International

Getty Images.
Show Hide image

The problems with ending encryption to fight terrorism

Forcing tech firms to create a "backdoor" to access messages would be a gift to cyber-hackers.

The UK has endured its worst terrorist atrocity since 7 July 2005 and the threat level has been raised to "critical" for the first time in a decade. Though election campaigning has been suspended, the debate over potential new powers has already begun.

Today's Sun reports that the Conservatives will seek to force technology companies to hand over encrypted messages to the police and security services. The new Technical Capability Notices were proposed by Amber Rudd following the Westminster terrorist attack and a month-long consultation closed last week. A Tory minister told the Sun: "We will do this as soon as we can after the election, as long as we get back in. The level of threat clearly proves there is no more time to waste now. The social media companies have been laughing in our faces for too long."

Put that way, the plan sounds reasonable (orders would be approved by the home secretary and a senior judge). But there are irrefutable problems. Encryption means tech firms such as WhatsApp and Apple can't simply "hand over" suspect messages - they can't access them at all. The technology is designed precisely so that conversations are genuinely private (unless a suspect's device is obtained or hacked into). Were companies to create an encryption "backdoor", as the government proposes, they would also create new opportunities for criminals and cyberhackers (as in the case of the recent NHS attack).

Ian Levy, the technical director of the National Cyber Security, told the New Statesman's Will Dunn earlier this year: "Nobody in this organisation or our parent organisation will ever ask for a 'back door' in a large-scale encryption system, because it's dumb."

But there is a more profound problem: once created, a technology cannot be uninvented. Should large tech firms end encryption, terrorists will merely turn to other, lesser-known platforms. The only means of barring UK citizens from using the service would be a Chinese-style "great firewall", cutting Britain off from the rest of the internet. In 2015, before entering the cabinet, Brexit Secretary David Davis warned of ending encryption: "Such a move would have had devastating consequences for all financial transactions and online commerce, not to mention the security of all personal data. Its consequences for the City do not bear thinking about."

Labour's manifesto pledged to "provide our security agencies with the resources and the powers they need to protect our country and keep us all safe." But added: "We will also ensure that such powers do not weaken our individual rights or civil liberties". The Liberal Democrats have vowed to "oppose Conservative attempts to undermine encryption."

But with a large Conservative majority inevitable, according to polls, ministers will be confident of winning parliamentary support for the plan. Only a rebellion led by Davis-esque liberals is likely to stop them.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

0800 7318496