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

Photo: Getty
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Germany's election isn't about who will win, but who gets to join Merkel in government

Even small changes in vote share could affect who rules with the chancellor's CDU.

The leaves are falling and the ballot boxes are being given a final polish. It should be peak Wahlkampf. (Trust us Germans to have a word for "campaign" which sounds like something that should be barked by a soldier in a black-and-white film.)

Yet, instead of "peak campaign", with just days to go before polling day, we have an almost deadly dull one. Europe’s largest nation is being gripped by apathy. Even the politicians seem to have given up. Four years ago the then Social Democratic (SPD) challenger for chancellor, Peer Steinbrück, was so desperate to grab attention that he posed on a magazine front cover pulling the middle finger.

Instead Chancellor Merkel’s strategy of depoliticising the economic and social challenges Germany faces, and being endorsed as the steady mother of the nation, seems to once again be bearing fruit. Her Social Democratic contender has simply not been able to cut through.

So much so that for most voters the differences in policy agenda between Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU/CSU) and her main challenger Martin Schulz’s SPD are hard to detect. Not least because the SPD has spent the past four years serving under Merkel as the junior partner in a so-called "grand coalition". It doesn’t make it easy to distinguish yourself when you have just spent the last four years agreeing in cabinet.

This is dangerous and careless in an age of economic and political insecurities where voter volatility has reached new heights, and the radical right-wing AfD is forecast to get a vote share in double figures – a tally that would make it the third strongest party in the Bundestag.

It’s business as usual for Merkel who has copied the playbook that so successfully delivered three victories: picking no fights and managing expectations. Why change a winning formula? She wants to carry on chasing the political legacy of her hero Helmut Kohl by securing a fourth term in office.

Once again the "safety first" strategy is paying off. Her CDU/CSU is on course with the polls showing a solid 17 per cent lead over Martin Schulz and the SPD.

Merkel may be cruising to victory, but Germany’s proportional electoral system means that she won’t be able to govern alone. Which means the most exciting question in the German election isn’t who is going to win, but with whom is Merkel going to form another government. All eyes are on the different combinations of parties that would provide the chancellor with a new majority.

As it stands, it is very likely that for the first time ever, the Bundestag will be host to six political parties. More dauntingly, it will also be the first time since the Second World War that members of the radical right-wing will be sat in the chamber. Arguably, this political setback may be seen as a failure of moderate forces to find the right political solutions for the refugee and financial crisis – the AfD is essentially the offspring of both – but it is also part of a wider populist surge in Europe and North America.

This fragmentation of the party system in Germany will make it a challenging task for CDU/CSU to form a coalition. However, with the return of the liberal, and pretty unashamedly neo-liberal FDP, Merkel can potentially revert to a traditional centre-right ally. This would please those in her party who have been sceptical of her socio-economic move to the left, and blame her for the rise of the right-wing populists.

A report by the University of Mannheim provides us with a useful, if firmly scholarly, political version of those dating compatibility quizzes we all like to do in idle lunch hours. It finds that a coalition between the CDU/CSU and the FDP would be a natural match. They would agree on 20 out of 38 of the main policy issues in German politics. 

On which issues would coalition partners agree/disagree?

Only the other traditional “bloc coalition” between the SPD and Greens, which lifted Gerhard Schröder into the chancellery in 1998, would do better, matched on 24 issues overall. The study matches preferences on key economic, social, domestic and foreign policy of all major political parties and maps potential areas of conflict for all realistic coalition options. But polls currently show that neither of the naturally fitting centre-right or centre-left blocs would have enough seats to make a coalition work.

Which leaves three possible scenarios. The most intriguing would be the "Jamaica coalition" of the CDU, FDP and Greens (so called because the three party colours are the same as the Jamaican flag). Such an option has never been tried before at the federal level but is currently in power in Schleswig-Holstein. Alternatively, Merkel could follow the example of Saxony-Anhalt and try governing with her own CDU/CSU alongside both the SPD and the Greens. However, the new study finds that a three-way pact would be more prone to conflict and harder to negotiate than any of the two-party options.

More than two parties in a coalition would be an interesting novelty at the federal level, but disagreement on individual policy areas is expected to be considerably greater. The so-called "traffic-light-coalition" of the SPD, the Greens and the FDP would agree on 11 topics, yet disagree on 20 issues. And on top of issue-specific conflicts it would be more difficult to bridge ideological differences between parties at the different ends of the left-right dimension, as such between the SPD and FDP.

In the end it will all depend on how the numbers play out on election day this Sunday. The fact is that even minor shifts in voting behaviour from the current poll predictions would make a major difference to the options for government formation.

So, what should you look out for on election night? I would suggest keeping an eye on the liberals. What happens to the FDP’s vote share is crucial for whether they can return to their role as coalition queenmaker, after failing to jump the 5 per cent hurdle in 2013 and ending up with no seats. If the business-friendly liberals cannot deliver a majority for Merkel, the ball will be firmly back in the SPD’s court.

Gerhard Schröder used to say that a chicken is fat at the end (it makes more sense in German).

But if Schulz’s campaign does not pick up momentum in the closing hours of the campaign, and the Social Democrats' vote share collapses to around 20 per cent, its leaders will find it difficult to justify another grand coalition to SPD members.

They will likely be once again asked to endorse any grand coalition with the traditional conservative enemy in a one-member-one-vote ballot. Many inside the party fear that another four years as junior partners to the strategically astute Merkel could be the end of the road for the Social Democrats.

Florian Ranft is a senior researcher and adviser at Policy Network