Hester's successor: the runners and riders emerge

With seven figure salary, job hardly a "thankless task".

A successful sell off the State’s shareholding in Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS) seems further away than ever. The RBS share price continues to tank. RBS shares kicked off the year at around 366p each; today they are down to 288p, down 23 per cent for the year to date, the worst performing UK banking share. Take a bow Mr. Osborne.

Since his latest RBS comments at the Mansion House speech on 19 June, the share price has fallen by more than 30p. The kindest interpretation of the Chancellor’s intervention in the past 10 days relating to the future of RBS is that he has created fresh political confusion. Encouraging the RBS board to dispense with Stephen Hester prematurely did little in the short term for the RBS share price.

Just to really put the boot in, Osborne then performed a U-turn of stunning proportions by saying that he would examine a good bank/bad bank split at RBS. This proposal was one that Osborne had argued against consistently despite strong arguments in its favour from such distinguished advocates as Mervyn King and Lord (Nigel) Lawson. If such an argument had merits – and it had three year ago – that time has passed.

A period of silence from Mr. Osborne concerning RBS would be welcome for the foreseeable. Meantime, keep a close eye on possible obfuscation relating to the share price that the government requires to obtain to break even on its RBS share acquisition. The UK government currently holds 81.14 per cent of shares in RBS, having injected £45.5bn. The average government buy-in price was 502.26p.

According to RBS, the break-even price has dropped to 440.6p, taking into account fees that RBS has paid to the government. This does not however take inflation into account. A more accurate breakeven figure would be somewhere about 470p but the RBS website continues to promote the notion of 440p as the magic figure.

One thing that the Chancellor could do by way of damage limitation would be to encourage an acceleration of the process to appoint Stephen Hester’s successor. The RBS board does not have to look too far for the standout candidate. The bank has reportedly engaged the doyen of City headhunters, Anna Mann, co-founder of blue-chip consultancy MWM, to recruit Hester’s replacement. MWM certainly has form: it has recruited 16 of the current CEOs of the present FTSE 100. Ignore the guff in the press about the CEO of RBS being a thankless task.

The job carries a seven figure salary, generous bonuses and guaranteed recognition in a future Honours List for successful execution. The latest odds, courtesy of Ladbrokes, suggest that Chris Sullivan, RBS chief executive of corporate banking, is the favourite at 9/4. Nathan Bostock, RBS’ head of restructuring and risk and the early front-runner – Ladbrokes quoted him as short as 1/2 last week – has drifted like a barge out to 3/1. National Australia Bank Group CEO Cameron Clyne has attracted support and has been backed into 4-1 from an initial show of 6-1. As Investec analyst Ian Gordon argues today in a note to clients, Ross McEwan, CEO, UK Retail at RBS is a stand-out choice. This time last week, his odds were a generous 20-1. This morning, his odds have tumbled to 8-1.

Last Wednesday, just ahead of George Osborne’s Mansion House speech, I asked a group of senior bankers attending a meeting of The Digital Banking Club I was chairing, to name what they reckoned was the world’s leading retail bank. There was strong support for Royal Bank of Canada – a view with which I concurred by the by. Interestingly, the CEO of Royal Bank of Canada, Gordon Nixon, is quoted at 16/1 to succeed Hester.

But the retail bank currently most admired in my straw poll last week was Commonwealth Bank of Australia. Much of the credit for CBA’s current success can be attributed to the work of Ross McEwan. McEwan joined RBS in August last year from CBA where he was Group Executive for Retail Banking Services for 5 years.

If Osborne has to interfere again in the running of RBS – on balance it would be better if he did not – he could do worse than give a nudge to the RBS chairman and to his expensively engaged headhunter – to view McEwan as a worthy successor to Hester.

Hester ousted: who's next? Photograph: Getty Images

Douglas Blakey is the editor of Retail Banker International

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Why Podemos will defeat the Spanish Socialists

A new alliance on the Spanish Left will be stronger than the sum of its parts.

On Saturday morning, on a palm-tree lined promenade in the small city of Badalona in eastern Catalonia, a 38-year-old woman named Mar García Puig fanned herself with her speaking notes after taking her turn on the stage.

Until six months ago, Puig was a literary editor with no professional experience in politics apart from attending demonstrations and rallies. Then, in December, her life was transformed twice over. In the national election, she won a parliamentary seat for En Comú Podem, the Catalan regional ally of the anti-austerity party Podemos. Four hours after she learned of her victory, Puig gave birth to twins.

Fortunately Puig’s husband, who is a teacher, was able to take paternity leave so that she could take up her seat. In parliament, Puig “felt like an alien”, she told me over coffee. As it turned out, she had to give up her seat prematurely anyway – along with all the other Spanish MPs – when repeated attempts to form a government failed. So now, in the lead-up to Spain’s first repeat election of the modern era, to be held on 26 June, Puig was on the campaign trail once more in a drive to win a parliamentary seat.

The December general election was as historic as it was inconclusive, ushering in a novel political era in Spain and leaving the country with the most fragmented parliament in its history. Fed up with corruption, austerity and a weak recovery from the global financial crisis, voters punished the mainstream parties, ending the 40-year dominance of the conservative Partido Popular (People’s Party) and the centre-left PSOE (Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party), which have held power since the death of General Franco. Neither group was able to win an absolute majority as new parties from both ends of the political spectrum garnered support from disenchanted voters.

On the left, Podemos, which was only founded in March 2014 by the ponytailed political scientist Pablo Iglesias, won 20 per cent of the vote. Ciudadanos (Citizens), formed in Catalonia a decade ago and occupying the centre left or centre right, depending on which analyst you talk to, secured a 14 per cent share.

Despite having four months to form a coalition government, the two biggest political parties could not reach a deal. The People’s Party, which had implemented a harsh austerity package over the past five years, recorded its worst electoral performance since 1989, losing 16 percentage points. It still won the most votes, however, and Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy was the first leader to be asked by King Felipe VI to form a government.

By the end of January, Rajoy conceded defeat after the PSOE refused to join his “grand coalition”. The Socialists then failed in their own attempt to form a government, leading the king to dissolve parliament and call a fresh election.

Despite the inconvenience of having to campaign nationwide once again – and being away from her twins – Mar García Puig’s enthusiasm for her new career is undiminished. “In Spain there is a window of opportunity,” she said. “There is a receptiveness to politics that there wasn’t before.”

When the repeat elections were called, some questioned whether Podemos and its regional allies could mobilise its supporters to the same extent as in December. Yet Puig believes that the party’s appeal has grown further in the six months that the country has been without a government. “We are still new and Podemos has this freshness – it can still make people join,” she told me.

The following day, as the church bells rang at noon in the Basque city of Bilbao, crowds gathered for another rally. For protection against the sun, Podemos supporters had covered their heads with purple triangular paper hats displaying the party name as it will appear on the ballot paper: Unidos Podemos, or “United We Can”.

In May, Podemos entered into an alliance with Izquierda Unida (United Left), the radical left-wing party that includes the Communist Party of Spain, and which won 3 per cent of the vote in December. Izquierda Unida is headed by Alberto Garzón, a 30-year-old Marxist economist who, according to a poll by the state-run CIS research institute, is the most highly rated party leader in Spain. Unlike Podemos’s Iglesias, who can fire up a crowd and is seen by some as divisive, Garzón is a calm and articulate politician who appeals to disaffected voters.

Nagua Alba, who at 26 is Podemos’s youngest MP, said the new alliance would be stronger than the sum of its parts, because Spain’s voting system punishes smaller parties when it comes to allocating seats in parliament. “It [the alliance] will attract all those people that aren’t convinced yet. It shows we can all work together,” Alba said.

As part of the agreement with Podemos, Izquierda Unida has agreed to drop its demands for a programme of renationalisation and withdrawing Spain from Nato. The alliance is campaigning on a platform of reversing Rajoy’s labour reforms, removing the national debt ceiling, opposing the TTIP trade deal, and increasing the minimum wage to €900 a month. A Unidos Podemos government would attempt to move the EU’s economic policy away from austerity and towards a more expansionist stance, joining a broader effort that involves Greece, Italy and Portugal. It is also committed to offering the Catalans a referendum on independence, a move that the mainstream parties strongly oppose.

The latest polls suggest that Unidos Podemos will become Spain’s second-biggest party, with 26 per cent of the vote, behind Rajoy’s Popular Party. The Socialist Party looks poised to fall into third place, with 21 per cent, and Ciudadanos is expected to hold its 14 per cent share. If the polls are accurate, the PSOE will face a difficult choice that highlights how far its stock has fallen. It can choose to enter as a junior partner into a coalition with the insurgent left, which has politically outmanoeuvred it. Or it could decide to prop up a Partido Popular-led right-wing coalition, serving as a constraint on power. 

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain