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

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Lord Empey: Northern Ireland likely to be without government for a year

The former UUP leader says Gerry Adams is now in "complete control" of Sinn Fein and no longer wants to be "trapped" by the Good Friday Agreement

The death of Martin McGuinness has made a devolution settlement in Northern Ireland even more unlikely and has left Gerry Adams in "complete control" of Sinn Fein, the former Ulster Unionist leader Reg Empey has said.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman on the day of McGuinness’ death, the UUP peer claimed his absence would leave a vacuum that would allow Adams, the Sinn Fein president, to consolidate his hold over the party and dictate the trajectory of the crucial negotiations to come. Sinn Fein have since pulled out of power-sharing talks, leaving Northern Ireland facing the prospect of direct rule from Westminster or a third election in the space of a year. 

Empey, who led the UUP between and 2005 and 2010 and was briefly acting first minister in 2001, went on to suggest that, “as things stand”, Northern Ireland is unlikely to see a return to fully devolved government before the inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme is complete -  a process which could take up to a year to complete.

“Adams is now in complete control of Sinn Fein,” he said, adding that it remained unclear whether McGuinness’ successor Michelle O’Neill would be “allowed to plough an independent furrow”. “He has no equal within the organisation. He is in total command of Sinn Fein, and that is the way it is. I think he’s even more powerful today than he was before Martin died – by virtue of there just being nobody there.”

Asked what impact the passing of McGuinness, the former deputy first minister and leader of Sinn Fein in the north, would have on the chances of a devolution settlement, Empey, a member of the UUP’s Good Friday Agreement negotiating delegation, said: “I don’t think it’ll be positive – because, for all his faults, Martin was committed to making the institutions work. I don’t think Gerry Adams is as committed.

Empey added that he believed Adams did not want to work within the constitutional framework of the Good Friday Agreement. In a rebuke to nationalist claims that neither Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire nor Theresa May can act as honest or neutral brokers in power-sharing negotiations given their reliance on the DUP’s eight MPs, he said: “They’re not neutral. And they’re not supposed to be neutral.

“I don’t expect a prime minister or a secretary of state to be neutral. Brokenshire isn’t sitting wearing a hat with ostrich feathers – he’s not a governor, he’s a party politician who believes in the union. The language Sinn Fein uses makes it sound like they’re running a UN mandate... Gerry can go and shout at the British government all he likes. He doesn’t want to be trapped in the constitutional framework of the Belfast Agreement. He wants to move the debate outside those parameters, and he sees Brexit as a chance to mobilise opinion in the republic, and to be seen standing up for Irish interests.”

Empey went on to suggest that Adams, who he suggested exerted a “disruptive” influence on power-sharing talks, “might very well say” Sinn Fein were “’[taking a hard line] for Martin’s memory’” and added that he had been “hypocritical” in his approach.

“He’ll use all of that,” he said. “Republicans have always used people’s deaths to move the cause forward. The hunger strikers are the obvious example. They were effectively sacrificed to build up the base and energise people. But he still has to come to terms with the rest of us.”

Empey’s frank assessment of Sinn Fein’s likely approach to negotiations will cast yet more doubt on the prospect that devolved government might be salvaged before Monday’s deadline. Though he admitted Adams had demanded nothing unionists “should die in a ditch for”, he suggested neither party was likely to cede ground. “If Sinn Fein were to back down they would get hammered,” he said. “If Foster backs down the DUP would get hammered. So I think we’ve got ourselves a catch 22: they’ve both painted themselves into their respective corners.”

In addition, Empey accused DUP leader Arlene Foster of squandering the “dream scenario” unionist parties won at last year’s assembly election with a “disastrous” campaign, but added he did not believe she would resign despite repeated Sinn Fein demands for her to do so.

 “It’s very difficult to see how she’s turned that from being at the top of Mount Everest to being under five miles of water – because that’s where she is,” he said. “She no longer controls the institutions. Martin McGuinness effectively wrote her resignation letter for her. And it’s very difficult to see a way forward. The idea that she could stand down as first minister candidate and stay on as party leader is one option. But she could’ve done that for a few weeks before Christmas and we wouldn’t be here! She’s basically taken unionism from the top to the bottom – in less than a year”.

Though Foster has expressed regret over the tone of the DUP’s much-criticised election campaign and has been widely praised for her decision to attend Martin McGuinness’ funeral yesterday, she remains unlikely to step down, despite coded invitations for her to do so from several members of her own party.

The historically poor result for unionism she oversaw has led to calls from leading loyalists for the DUP and UUP – who lost 10 and eight seats respectively – to pursue a merger or electoral alliance, which Empey dismissed outright.

“The idea that you can weld all unionists together into a solid mass under a single leadership – I would struggle to see how that would actually work in practice. Can you cooperate at a certain level? I don’t doubt that that’s possible, especially with seats here. Trying to amalgamate everybody? I remain to be convinced that that should be the case.”

Accusing the DUP of having “led unionism into a valley”, and of “lashing out”, he added: “They’ll never absorb all of our votes. They can try as hard as they like, but they’d end up with fewer than they have now.”

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.