It's hard to let go, but RBS needs be returned to market

Let’s get out of this business, and invest in something more worthwhile, writes James Ratcliff.

I was humiliated last night. After dinner in a favourite restaurant I handed my card to the waitress and had the gut-wrenching experience of being told it had been declined.

After a second failed attempt, I fished out another credit card—one I rarely use—typed my dog’s birthday into the card-reader, and crossed my fingers. Fortunately, it worked and we were allowed to leave without having to do the washing up.

Of course, I bank with Natwest, and I ought to have gotten used to this by now. It certainly proves one thing—you really cannot rely on a single bank.

Payments services are not yet a human right, and banks long ago gave up trying to treat their current account holders with respect. The onus is on us not to let them embarrass us in restaurants and encourage people to use premium rate phone lines when we need their help

In this climate, it is no surprise that credit unions—resolutely local lending and savings organisations—are seeing a resurgence

This latest payments fiasco comes the same day that Bank of England governor Mervyn King told us that we, as majority stakeholders, need to cut our losses in Natwest’s parent company RBS.

"RBS is worth less than we thought and we should accept that and get back to finding a way to create a new RBS that could be a major lender to the UK economy,” he said.

This effectively means separating the bank’s retail and investment arms, but the question remains, how do you create a major lender to the UK economy if you’re going to pare it down to its core retail operations? It hasn’t really worked for Northern Rock.

It is a balancing act. RBS clearly needs some fairly drastic pruning—through its Citizens Bank subsidiary we own and run 1,200 bank branches in the US, which seems a bit extravagant for a state-owned lender. And that’s not to mention RBS’s much-derided investment operation. However, a bank does require scale in order to work on anything other than a very local level.

King was clear in his view that this balance is not unachievable. “I do not believe it’s beyond the wit of man to devise a plan to restructure RBS [and] divide it into a healthy well-capitalised bank capable of lending to UK economy,” he said. “It does mean accepting there are activities that are likely to generate continued losses, and need to be separated from the healthy bank – in that sense it would a be a good bank/bad bank split.

"The whole idea of a bank being 82 per cent-owned by the taxpayer, run at arms' length from the government, is a nonsense. It cannot make any sense.

"I think it would be much better to accept that it should have been a temporary period of ownership only, to restructure the bank and put it back. The longer this has gone on the more difficult it has become to return RBS to the market.”

Definitely not a bad idea, let’s get out of this business, and invest in something more worthwhile.

But, while I know it’s never a good idea to throw good money after bad, I wonder if we could stretch to buying the bank a few new computers before we get rid of it. At least then Natwest customers will actually be able to access their money when they need it, and we will have achieved something.

Photograph: Getty Images.

James Ratcliff is Group Editor of  Cards and Payments at VRL Financial News.

Photo: Getty
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The Brexiteers have lost battles but they are still set to win the war

The prospect of the UK avoiding Brexit, or even a “hard” version, remains doubtful. 

Before the general election, the Brexiteers would boast that everything had gone their way. Parliament had voted to trigger Article 50 by a majority of 372. The Treasury-forecast recession hadn't occurred. And polls showed the public backing Brexit by a comfortable margin

But since the Conservatives' electoral humbling, the Leavers have been forced to retreat on multiple fronts. After promising in May that the dispute over the timetable for the Brexit talks would be "the fight of the summer", David Davis capitulated on the first day.

The UK will be forced to settle matters such as EU citizens' rights, the Irish border and the divorce bill before discussions begin on a future relationship. Having previously insisted that a new trade deal could agreed by 29 March 2019 (Britain's scheduled departure date), the Brexiteers have now conceded that this is, in Liam Fox's words, "optimistic" (translation: deluded). 

That means the transitional arrangement the Leavers once resisted is now regarded as inevitable. After the eradication of the Conservatives' majority, the insistence that "no deal is better than a bad deal" is no longer credible. No deal would mean the immediate return of a hard Northern Irish border (to the consternation of the Tories' partners the DUP) and, in a hung parliament, there are no longer the votes required to pursue a radical deregulatory, free market agenda (for the purpose of undercutting the EU). As importantly for the Conservatives, an apocalyptic exit could pave the way for a Jeremy Corbyn premiership (a figure they previously regarded as irretrievably doomed). 

Philip Hammond, emboldened by the humiliation of the Prime Minister who planned to sack him, has today outlined an alternative. After formally departing the EU in 2019, Britain will continue to abide by the rules of the single market and the customs union: the acceptance of free movement, European legal supremacy, continued budget contributions and a prohibition on independent trade deals. Faced with the obstacles described above, even hard Brexiteers such as Liam Fox and Michael Gove have recognised that the game is up.

But though they have lost battles, the Leavers are still set to win the war. There is no parliamentary majority for a second referendum (with the pro-Remain Liberal Democrats still enfeebled), Hammond has conceded that any transitional arrangement would end by June 2022 (the scheduled date of the next election) and most MPs are prepared to accept single market withdrawal. The prospect of Britain avoiding Brexit, or even a "hard" version, remains doubtful. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.