Hester: RBS "will be ready to sell by 2015"

Huge losses, bonus caps, and too much government interference.

RBS posted a huge loss today - a pre-tax loss of £5.17bn.

Operating profits were in fact up: £3.46bn in 2012, up from £1.82bn the previous year, the highest since its bail-out in 2008 - but charges from 2012's smorgasboard of scandals brought that right down.

The news came just as EU officials agreed to put a cap on bankers bonuses as early as next year - bad news all round for RBS.

Speaking on the Today programme this morning, RBS boss Stephen Hester said that bankers pay "needs to be in line with contribution."

He said: "I don't think bankers should be treated as special creatures."

"The most important thing for business certainty is a level playing field... As we know the financial crisis was a period of excess in many areas...that's what we're cleaning up for now."

The clean-up is not RBS's only problem though. As the government has a large stake in it you get the impression RBS isn't quite sure what its  priorities should be: should it play to the commercial interests of its minority share-holders, or invest in small businesses, as the government is pressing it to do? There seems to be a lack of communication between government and bank, and in the BBC interview today Hester was clearly champing at the bit for a sell-off.

"We are doing everything we can to facilitate a sale", he said. "I think that RBS will be ready to be privatised in the next couple years. It will be ready to sell by 2015".

"Privatisation is coming further into the agenda of the government and we welcome that."

It will be up to the government to decide the date of the sell-off though - likely to be another point of contention between government and bank.


RBS posted a huge loss today Photograph: Getty Images

Martha Gill writes the weekly Irrational Animals column. You can follow her on Twitter here: @Martha_Gill.

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Sooner or later, John McDonnell must defend the bankers he hates

The shadow chancellor's message is too complicated to be clear. 

“Like me, you will have friends who voted Conservative,” John McDonnell told an audience of mechanical engineers, Labour faithful and journalists. “They don’t want a bankers’ breakfast – Brexit – any more than I do.”

If the shadow chancellor would subconsciously prefer to talk about fry ups, it might be because the government’s strategy on Brexit has put him in a bind. The man known as a true follower of Marx is increasingly finding himself on the same side as the capitalists. 

In the run up to the EU referendum vote, the Tory Brexiteers leading the Leave campaign talked up a business-friendly, free trading Britain, a Singapore on the North Atlantic, as McDonnell put it in his speech. Labour’s Remain campaigners warned of attacks on workers’ rights.

But then came Brexit, and the economic liberals’ fall from grace. Britain’s new Prime Minister, Theresa May, has steered away from the cosy reassurances once offered to UK Plc and towards the world of the “just managings”. Her Brexit minister, David Davis, hasn’t revealed much about the negotiations, but he has said this: “This Conservative government will not roll back those rights in the workplace.” 

The Tory PM’s focus on controlling immigration and economic fairness will delight many traditional Labour voters. But her apparent complacency about the single market is unnerving economic liberals, and businesses. The most obvious critique of the Prime Minister is that she is willing to risk all-important access to the single market, in order to win on a populist point. 

McDonnell has clearly spotted his. And yet, forced to mount an attack from a free trade position, he sounds conflicted. In his speech on Thursday, he attacked Tory backbenchers who tried to intervene in the Bank of England’s independent monetary policy, and declared: “The economic benefits of free trade are well-known throughout this country.” 

Financial services access is a “red line” in Labour’s negotiation stance. He is prepared to make “a robust economic case” for the benefits of free trade “over the perceived costs of migration”.

Nevertheless, McDonnell’s suspicion of the financial services industry is never far away. His speech was peppered with references to “special deals for bankers”, the “elite” and a “few jobs in the Square Mile”. 

“We have reached the end of the line for the old economic model, with financial services at its centre,” he declared. Instead of a trickle down of wealth, he said, the public had seen “a grotesque trickle up”. 

McDonnell may be bang on in his analysis that economic inequality drove Brexit. He may be right that the economy needs to rebalance towards manufacturing. But that is not what the Brexit negotiations are about. The next two-and-a-half years are about trying to preserve and haggle - and shout the loudest about what the government's priorities should be. And the financial services are central to this. 

Like it or not, we live in a country where services account for nearly 80 per cent of the UK economy, according to the Office for National Statistics, and generate 11.6 per cent of tax receipts. In Scotland, financial services employ nearly 100,000 people. 

The financial services industry is also one of those most jeopardised by Brexit, because it is not a straightforward case of negotiating tariffs. Without passporting rights, UK firms serving the EU are expected to have to establish a subsidiary in the EU. The Institute for Fiscal Studies concluded: “It is clear that the financial services sector is disproportionately affected.”

In other words, the uncertain fate of the financial services industry represents the cold, hard reality of Brexit. The public need to know exactly what the stakes are. McDonnell could be the one to spell this out, and he shouldn't be ashamed by the fact - any more than his Labour predecessors should be for bailing out the banks. But doing so requires mustering up at least a little enthusiasm for financial services. Perhaps he’d better ask his Conservative friends for advice. 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.