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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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.