Monday, 27 May 2013

Why the Co-op is right to stop new commercial lending




Commercial lending has been a significant contributor to the downfall of a number of financial services organisations. This was the primary reason that HBoS failed and subsequently took Lloyds Banking Group down with it. It was also the principle cause of the failure of Bradford & Bingley who made a major play into the buy-to-let market. Alliance & Leicester kept out of that market until the temptation of high margins and growth became too great to resist and paid the ultimate price by, like Bradford & Bingley, having to be 'rescued' by Santander. Britannia Building Society, which the Co-op acquired, aggressively entered the commercial lending market prior to its acquistion. Indeed it is the size and the problems within the Britannia Building Society commercial lending book that has fundamentally caused the huge capital gap and the down grading of the Co-op's credit rating.

A question has to be why so many safe building societies/mutuals have been tempted into commercial lending and got it so wrong?

There is no doubt that in the good times that commercial lending is highly attractive with guaranteed rents and better margins than for residential lending. The size of deals are far larger than for residential lending and for those who are motivated by numbers signing a deal measured in millions rather than hundreds of thousands is very attractive.

There is also no doubt that market for commercial lending is very much more volatile than for residential lending. Up until 2008 it was always the perceived belief that the only direction for residential housing prices to go was up - the expression 'as safe as houses' was for good reason.

The residential housing market is also more homogenous than commercial lending. Commercial lending has a wide variety of segments such as hotels, offices, retail and industrial. These segments operate in different ways, have different cycles and require specialist knowledge.

Commercial lending requires high amounts of capital, has a far broader range of risks than residential lending and requires having a large diversified portfolio to be successful in the long term.

For residential lending there is a lot of data about the market available, the amount of capital for each individual deal is a lot less, there is a huge amount of historical data, so making fact based decisions is relatively straigh forward.

The same cannot be said for commercial lending. What is critical for success in commercial lending is both internal and external data on what is going on in the market. This includes knowing and understanding what the competitors are doing. If a bank is winning all the commercial lending deals and others are withdrawing from the market then the executive need to be asking why. A question is whether the banks that failed had the data and the analytics in place and, if so, why they didn't respond to it?

For many years banks have wrestled with the decision of whether SME banking sits with the retail bank or the commercial and corporate bank. At least one lesson that should be taken from the financial crisis is that the skills, knowledge and understanding that is required to lend to consumers and the mass market is quite different from those to lend to businesses. To move from retail to commercial lending is not a continuum but to move into a totally different business. It appears that the new CEO of the Co-op gets this and has wisely decided that commercial lending is a step too far. The question outstanding is still whether the Co-op should be in banking at all?

Wednesday, 15 May 2013

Should Co-op exit banking?

As incoming CEO, Euan Sutherland, reviews his options for raising potentially in excess of £1bn extra capital, given the issues he faces, rather than considering selling off his funeral business (a recession proof, profitable business), a logical option would be to look at selling off Co-op Bank.

The problems that Co-op Bank has both with the quality of the debt and the IT sit squarely with the misguided acquistion of Britannia Building Society. It is Britannia's foray into commercial property that has resulted in the downgrading of the Co-op's debt. It is the poorly executed integration of Britannia into the Co-op bank that has cost more, taken longer and has not left the Co-op with a viable banking platform. Both of those facts not only de-railed the Verde deal but should have been enough of a warning to both the Treasury and the FSA (as the regulatory body at that time) not to proceed with the Co-op as the preferred buyer of Verde.

A question that Euan Sutherland needs to answer as part of his strategic review is does it make strategic sense for the Co-op to own a bank? If it does, what will it cost to take what he currently has and turn it into a significant competitor in the market?

Tesco has invested heavily and continues to in Tesco Bank. It is taking more time and costing a lot more than it  was orignally envisaged to re-launch it as a full service retail bank. However its starting position was and is very different from that of the Co-op. For a start Tesco is world class at customer analytics and applying that to its business. With the launch of the Tesco Clubcard and the acquisition of the customer analytics business Dunhumby, Tesco has a wealth of information and insight about its customers which it already leverages and with the launch of current accounts and mortgages will be able to leverage further for its bank. Secondly Philip Clarke, the CEO of Tesco, recognises that digital is the second curve (the first curve being the stores) that Tesco must invest in to win in the market. Having a large estate of stores is not enough anymore to win in Financial Services or Retail. Tesco is investing millions in digital for both marketing and selling. With Tesco Mobile as part of its offering it is also very well positioned to lead in mobile payments and banking.

Although Sainsbury's was the first amongst the UK supermarkets to launch a bank, it allowed Tesco to overtake it. With the announcement by Sainsbury's that they have bought out Lloyds Banking Group's share of Sainsbury's Bank and will be investing £260m over the next 42 months to put in place a new banking platform, the seriousness of Sainsbury's intent to become a significant competitor for financial services is clear. Like Tesco, Sainsbury's will leverage the synergies from their stores and the customer insight they get from the Nectar card. Like the Tesco Clubcard Nectar will be a critical part of it's differentiated offering. Sainsbury's too is investing in digital (though it lags Tesco) and recognise the need to deliver omni-channel propositions i.e. allowing customers to interact with the bank over multiple channels simultaneously. Sainsbury's will in many ways be playing catch up on Tesco, however in comparison to Co-op are still significantly ahead.

Co-op still needs to complete the integration of Britannia Building Society, would need to invest significantly in digital for both the retail and banking offerings to even compete. To  be in a position to leverage the synergies between the bank and the rest of the Co-op Group will require significant investment beyond that required to meet regulatory requirements.

When Euan Sutherland looks at all of this, the capital he will need to inject onto the bank's balance sheet, the  size of the investments he will need to make to even get close to Tesco and Sainsbury's in terms of financial services, the time it will take and the likely returns he will need to consider whether this really is the best place for both his customers and members to place his bet.

However who will be interested in buying and how much they will be willing to pay for Co-op Bank with it's junk status debt given that there are at least two other banks available on the market - the 316 RBSG branches and the 632 Lloyds Banking Group Verde branches? There is no doubt that Euan Sutherland has some tough decisions to make in his first few months.