Wednesday, 24 April 2013

Will Verde be Co-op's ABN Amro?


In April 2007 John Varley, then CEO of Barclays, in an attempt to vault Barclays into the Premier League of investment banking made a bid for ABN Amro. Not to be outdone Sir Fred Goodwin put together a consortium consisting of RBS, Santander and Fortis to put in a counter bid.

Through the spring and summer of 2007 a battle took place to win ABN Amro. It could be said that it stopped being entirely about the business sense of acquiring the bank and more about winning the deal, beating the other CEO. This was a deal that appeared to be personal. The price continued to rise.

Finally in early October John Varley and Barclays conceded defeat and withdrew their offer. Barclays was rewarded with being paid 200m Euros as a break fee by ABN Amro. Even at the time of Barclays' withdrawal analysts were saying that RBS was paying too much. One said that RBS was going to be struck by 'the winner's curse'.

The rest, as they say is history. The capital required, the slow down and eventual crash of the global markets and the complexity of the integration all contributed to the situation RBS finds itself in now.

Looking at the Co-op's pursuit of the  632 Verde branches that Lloyds Banking Group has to sell, there appear to be some parallels with the ABN Amro pursuit. Could it be that the Co-op will also be struck down with 'the winner's curse'?

The pursuit of Verde has not been as long as for ABN Amro but it appears to have been as personal. In July 2012 Peter Marks, the CEO of Co-op, boasted that he has taken the shirt off the back of the  Lloyds Banking Group CEO, Antonio Horta-Osario, as they agreed to a £750m price tag. Given that the expectation had been that Verde would sell for between £1.5-2bn, he may have had a point, though he may have been better keeping his opinion to himself.

However Co-op is also paying a big price in other ways to raise the capital it needs to acquire Verde. With the announcement of the sale of its Life & Pensions and Savings business to Royal London and its instruction of Deutsche Bank to find a buyer for its General Insurance business, the Co-op's existing financial services business is being taken apart in order to raise the capital for Verde. Aviva is rumoured to be interested in acquiring the General Insurance business.These deals are not dependent on the Verde deal going through, so should the deal fail the Co-op will be in a much poorer state.

Similarly RBS had to raise a lot of money in order to pay the price it had agreed for ABN Amro. In RBS's case it went to the market and executed a huge rights issue for which in a class action it is now being sued). This left RBS with a highly weakened balance sheet, which made it unable to absorb the massive change in the market. How would RBSG have fared if they hadn't pursued and won ABN-Amro? They certainly would still have had problems with their exposure to Ireland through Ulster Bank and the investment banking business would still have been hit, but with a stronger balance sheet and without the exposure to the PIIGS (Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Greece, Spain) that ABn Amro brought the size of the bailout required from the UK Government would have been significantly lower. Fred Groodwin would almost certainly be Sir Fred Goodwin and his pension would be intact.

Should the acquisition still go ahead, which is looking less likely, this will not be a simple integration by any stretch of the imagination. The integration of Britannia Building Society has proved to be a major challenge for the Co-op, Verde will far more complex. Again looking back at RBS, Sir Fred Goodwin went into the ABN Amro integration full of confidence that the bank knew how to do integrations, but Natwest was fundamentally a larger version of RBS so it was a homogenous integration, ABN Amro was an integration of something quite different from RBS and the costs of integration ballooned.

One of the worst scenarios for the Co-op is that they sell off the assets they need in order to complete the Verde transaction and then fail to close the purchase. This would leave the Co-op in a weakened position in terms of Financial Services and overall in a poorer strategic position.

Whilst Peter Marks may have got what appears to be a rock bottom price for Verde the Co-op will be tied to Lloyds Banking Group for many years to come since they have agreed to pay for and use the Lloyds Banking Group systems for the Verde branches. It will take hundreds of millions of pounds and  years to move off these systems and onto a modern architected banking system so Co-op and Lloyds Banking Group will be partners for many years to come.  The Co-op may need to be reminded of the expression that revenge is a meal best eaten cold.

In the meantime Santander has withdrawn from the acquisition of the 316 branches that RBS is being forced to sell. Santander is a bank that appears to always make smart deals - Abbey National, Bradford & Bingley, Alliance & Leicester and Antonveneta to name a few. Antonveneta was owned by ABN Amro and was one part of Santander's element of the consortium bid led by RBS. In true Santander style it sold Antonveneta on to Banca Monte dei Paschi di Siena before Santander had even taken possession making a $3.5bn profit in the process. For Peter Marks it would be sensible to contemplate why Santander withdrew from the RBS branch purchase and reflect on how that might apply to the Verde deal.

As the crunch point approaches when Co-op must decide one way or another to complete or walk away from the deal and Peter Marks looks forward to his retirement, it would be good to have one last reflection on the deal and to decide whether he would rather be John Varley, who walked away from a bad deal with his reputation intact, or Fred Goodwin who was struck down by the winner's curse.

Update April 24th 2013.

So Peter Marks made the almost certainly right decision to walk away from the Verde deal. For the Co-op to have been burdened with the debt and enormous risks of the Verde deal would not have been a good leaving present.

However it does bring into question the future of financial services within the Co-op. Having sold the life and savings business to Royal London and with the general insurance business on the blocks a question has to be whether the Co-op should pull out of financial services altogether. The integration of Britannia into Co-op Financial Services has been a major challenge and it has not resulted in a real challenger to the Big 5 banks. The Co-op is at a crossroads and needs to decide whether financial services is really a business it can be successful in.

Monday, 22 April 2013

Are drive thru branches really relevant in the 21st century?

Metro Bank has announced that it will open in May the first drive thru branch in the UK this century. The branch will be alongside a dual carriageway in Slough the town that was the setting for Ricky Gervais' 'The Office'. It will consist of its own dual carriageway - one for ATM and automated deposit services and one for access to a teller for day-to-day transactions.

The UK does not have a history of drive thru bank branches with only three having been recorded - the first in 1959, the second in 1966 and finally one at Hatton Cross near Heathrow Airport in 1998. Given that there has been so little success with drive thru branches in the past the question has to be asked why not and what is different this time?

Most banks  are increasingly trying to drive transactions out of the branches rather than through them encouraging their customers to carry out routine transactions online either through internet or mobile banking. Along with this and the use of cash declining, this  move on Metro Bank's part seems counter intuitve. However Metro Bank was launched on the basis that it did not want to be like other banks.  Vernon Hill, the American founder of Metro Bank, is not someone to follow the herd. Hill grew Commerce Bank, the successful banking business in the US, based on his experience of running McDonald's franchises. He sold TD Bank before coming to the UK and based on that experience launched the first new bank in the UK.

Metro Bank has focussed on providing a different, louder, more US-styled experience for customers with features such as 'magic' coin-counting machines that look like Vegas slot machines, lollipops and free dog biscuits.

Metro Bank proudly does not compete on price but on the customer experience it provides. The launch of the drive thru bank is part of this differentiated experience. It comes ahead of the launch of seven business day switching that all UK banks will need to adhere to from October 2013 and in anticipation of increased competition from other new entrants such as Tesco, Marks & Spencer and Virgin Money.

Banks for many years now have actively attempted to re-purpose branches from transaction processing to retail outlets where the customer is encouraged to spend the time required to open more complex products such as current accounts and mortgages.

The Metro Bank drive thru branches will clearly be servicing not sales centres, however they will be paired with a more traditional branch where sales can be carried out.

However the more recent trend in retail banking is very much towards omni-channel where digital is integrated into the whole customer experience irrelevant of which channel is used. This is where the leading banks are investing. This includes bringing internet and mobile banking into the branches and through digital bringing the contact center operative and the banking advisor into the home or onto the smart phone or tablet.

Tesco another new entrant into full service banking is investing heavily into digital and omni-channel banking prior to its full launch. Metro Bank does have an online banking service but does not major on this or reflect that in their current seventeen branches.

It is unlikely that the launch of drive thru banking is going to be the breakthrough strategy for Metro Bank that takes them from being a small but attention-grabbing player to being a significant threat to the big 5 banks, but it will certainly get them some free publicity.

Tuesday, 16 April 2013

RDR reducing access to advice for customers



The Retail Distribution Review (RDR) introduced by the UK Labour Government was aimed at improving the quality of advice provided to customers and the transparency around the charges for that advice.

With the annoucement first by Barclays in January 2011 and then by HSBC in May 2012 of their withdrawal from providing investment and Life & Pensions advice to the mass market, rather than help the customer, RDR has in fact reduced customer access to advice. Both banks have stated that the reason for their withdrawal has been that the business is no longer viable for them commercially. The additional cost of training their staff to meet the high standards laid down by RDR and, undoubtedly, the size of fines and the risks associated with mis-selling of these products, has made it unattractive for them to continue in this business.

RBS is neither fully exiting or getting behind branch-based mass market advice. Their announcement that they will be laying off 618 advice based staff is a reflection of the reality that if you move from what is perceived to be a free service (even though consumers are paying commission through the annual fees hidden in their investments) to one which is fee-based inevitably volumes will drop.

Lloyds Banking Group had been saying that they would continue to provide advice to mass market customers. However when they asked customers  about this what they  found "for the majority of our customers, demand for a fee-based financial planning advice service decreases when they have lower amounts to invest,". As a consequence they have announced that they will only be offering advice (for a fee) to those with more than £100,000 of investable assets. They will continue to offer a non-advised service through the Halifax, Bank of Scotland and Lloyds TSB branches. Around 1,000 branch staff will be impacted by this change and will be offered either a new role or redundancy. Given this move by Lloyds Banking Group the argument for selling off Scottish Widows becomes even stronger (see http://www.itsafinancialworld.net/2012/05/why-lloyds-shoudnt-dismiss-selling.html ).

Interestingly Santander is taking a contrary position and on hearing of the layoff of the HSBC staff allegedly approached HSBC with a view to hiring those laid off.

However even Santander is now reconsidering this position. In February 2013 they are being investigated for giving poor advice following mystery shopping by the FSA uncovering poor practices. Shortly before Christmas 800 advisers were suspended for retraining. A review of strategic options is now under way. In March 2013 this concluded with the withdrawal of face-to-face advice for new customers, putting at risk 874 jobs. A new team of 150 advisors will be deployed to serve existint customers.

In April 2013 Clydesdale, Yorkshire and Co-op announced the withdrawal of advice from their branches. In their case this was supplied by Axa. According to the Financial Times, Paul Evans, chief executive of Axa UK, said he was “very disappointed” that the division “must also now withdraw this service having not found a model which balanced the regulatory requirement that the service be profitable in its own right, whilst setting advice fees at an affordable level.”

The exit is not only being seen amongst the big players in the market. The building societies are also withdrawing from the market. In early 2011 Norwich  & Peterborough Building Society sold their sales force to Aviva and withdrew from the market. There are also large numbers of IFAs (Independent Financial Advisors) who due to the cost of funding the training and the amount of studying are withdrawing from the industry, again reducing accessability to advice for the lower to middle income customers.

This is creating a very serious problem. With all of us living for longer and the cost of living, particularly in the later years rising, with the reduction in employer provided pensions benefits, there is an increasing need for individuals to save for the longer term, to invest in individual pensions and to provide for their loved ones through life assurance. With the options complex and becoming more complex there is an increasing need for advice, however what RDR has done is reduce access to that advice.

With the availability of advice for investment products being reduced the current UK Government is now putting in plans to reduce the accessibility of advice for mortgage products. Similar to RDR the Mortgage Market Review (MMR) set out to protect customers but is fact making it far more difficult to get advice. For instance should a customer phone up a bank such as First Direct and ask about mortgage products the bank employee will not be able to talk about the difference between a fixed-rate mortgage versus a variable rate mortgage since that would be seen as advice and without completing a fact find that will no longer be possible. This could once again, see mortgage advisors and brokers withdrawing from the market.

Not all banks are withdrawing from either the investment market or the mortgage market. There are those who are considering the commercials and rather than quitting are looking at innovative ways of improving productivity of their advisors. Both Bank of America and Bank of Moscow have pilots out using videoconferencing to bring the advisors virtually to the branches. With the increasing acceptance of videoconferencing through the likes of Apple's Facetime or Skype, the availability on devices such as the iPad, then those organisations with the imagination may still be able to find ways to commercially provide advice to the mass market.

Of course videoconferencing does not overcome the requirement to have fully trained and qualified advisors, since selling through videcconferencing is no less regulated than through branches or contact centres. What it does mean though is that through the higher productivity brought about by the advisors being able to support multiple branches less advisors are needed and the cost of providing advice is therefore reduced.

What RDR shows, once again, is that when governments with all good intentions create regulation for the Financial Services sector the effect on customers is often the opposite of what they intended. Governments should spend more time considering and discussing regulation with customers and the industry (and not instantly assume that whatever the banks say is wrong and out of self-interest) and resist the temptation to rush out populist regulation.