With Cameron Clyne leaving National Australia to spend more time with his family, incoming Group CEO, Andrew Thorburn, will have to face the perennial question of what to do with the bank’s UK businesses. For many years Yorkshire Bank and Clydesdale Bank have been seen as albatrosses hanging around the neck of the incumbent Group CEO of National Australia. With Nab’s focus on growing in their domestic market and Asia the two banks have long been seen as non-strategic.
During the financial crisis Nab had to invest nearly £1.5bn of capital into the business to shore up the balance sheet. There have been challenges with non performing loans as well as redress for misselling of PPI to add to the woes. As part of a plan to improve the performance of the business there has been a significant cost cutting exercise that resulted in the removal of 1,400 jobs and the closure of 29 banking centres. There has also been a withdrawal from London and the south of England.
However for many years both banks have been starved of any significant investment to improve them and to make them better able to compete in the UK market. It is not since the Brit John Stewart was Group CEO and fellow Brit Lynne Peacock was running the UK operations that any significant effort was put into innovation and growing the businesses in the UK. Indeed large parts of the strategy for the UK banks set out by Stewart and Peacock were reversed during the cost cutting exercise. (Recent news that Clydesdale Bank is to issue Britain’s first plastic £5 note hardly counts as innovation).
Nab in Melbourne have for a long time been very open about the fact that Yorkshire Bank and Clydesdale Bank are seen as non-strategic. The market has been sounded out for interest in acquiring the business. At one point it was rumoured that Santander was interested in acquiring the business but no deal has emerged. A key on-going challenge for the Nab Group CEO has been that there has been a significant gap between the value that the UK operations are held on the balance sheet and the price potential acquirers are prepared to pay. This situation has deteriorated even further since the crisis in 2008 with both bank valuations dropping and the interest in acquiring banks disappearing. For Nab, either no Group CEO wanted to take that write off on their watch or the Board wouldn’t let him.
There is no doubt that there has been and continues to be a lot of dissatisfaction from analysts and investors about the financial performance of Nab in its local domestic market. It is seen as the laggard of the Four Pillars. The challenge for Andrew Thorburn is to turn around that perception. Whilst the UK operations are definitely not the highest priority in terms of fixing the business they are seen both as a distraction and requiring significant capital that could be better deployed elsewhere.
So as Andrew Thorburn starts his role as CEO in August 2014, will he do something to resolve this issue and what are his options for the UK operations?
The ideal outcome for the new CEO would be to sell the UK operations and minimise the write off. The question though is who would want to buy them?
On paper Yorkshire Bank and Clydesdale Bank could be challenger banks. They both have strong brands with loyal customers. The Yorkshire brand stretches way beyond the county boundaries. Clydesdale is seen very much as a Scottish bank and one that has managed to maintain its reputation far better than either Royal Bank of Scotland or HBoS, its two main rivals. This could make it attractive to Private Equity firms, for instance JC Flowers might wish to merge it with its OneSavings Bank. It could also be attractive to other Private Equity firms looking to establish a foothold in the UK retail banking market. However the timing for One Savings Bank is not good as they have already announced that they are to float and that is where their focus in the short term will be.
The challenge for anyone evaluating Yorkshire and Clydesdale is, apart from their customer base, what is there of value to acquire? Between the Yorkshire and Clydesdale they have 322 branches, a very similar number to the branches that Williams & Glyn (the challenger bank being created from the forced disposal RBS has to make) will have. However, as is becoming increasingly apparent to both established and challenger banks, the use of branches by customers is declining and therefore the value of having an extensive network of branches is reducing. As both RBS and Lloyds found out finding buyers for their branches was not easy with both, respectively, Santander and Co-op withdrawing their offers after long protracted negotiations. The additional challenge with the Yorkshire and Clydesdale branches is that significant investment by the buyer would be required to bring the branches up to a standard customers expect today due to the lack of investment by Nab over the last few years.
If a new entrant was looking to acquire the Nab UK operations and they wanted to initially use the Nab IT platforms then if they wish to be competitive they would need to invest very heavily over the medium term on new platforms, as the Nab platforms are old and in need of retiring.
With a cost income ratio of 76% there is a lot of efficiency gains to be driven out by the right owner, but the question is the level of investment to achieve this and over what time period.
Given the level of investment that any new entrant would need to make in order to use the UK operations as a platform for competing in the UK retail banking market, the price that they would be prepared to offer is highly unlikely to meet the amount sitting on the Nab balance sheet.
Given Nab’s situation it is easy to understand why a couple of years ago Santander were rumoured to be interested in acquiring the UK operations. Santander has its own platform, Partnenon, and has a track record of being able to migrate bank accounts onto its systems – Abbey National, Alliance & Leicester and Bradford & Bingley. The challenge for Nab is that Santander is a distress purchaser and never knowingly overpays.
If Nab can’t sell Yorkshire and Clydesdale at an acceptable price then what about a flotation? Timing is a real challenge here as there has never been a time when more banks are coming onto the market. TSB, Aldermore, OneSavings Bank,William & Glyn, Virgin Money, Metro and Shawbrook have all announced intentions to come to the market over the next eighteen months. Investors are spoilt for choice. Along with the recent disappointing flotations (Saga, JustEat. AO, etc), albeit in other sectors, there will be a downward pressure on prices and consequently the amount of capital that will be raised.
Another option is to do nothing and let the two brands continue to operate as they are today, continue to reduce costs and improve performance with minimal investment and allow the business to slowly decline as customers move away to competitors when they are attracted by better offers.
There is no immediate need for Andrew Thorburn to make a decision about the future of the UK operations particularly given the uncertainty with the Scottish Referendum occurring in September 2014. The UK operations operate under a Scottish banking licence and a ‘Yes’ vote could create a long period of uncertainty and have a significant impact on the value of the UK operations.
However as a new CEO there is a grace period during which there is an opportunity as the new broom to look with fresh eyes at all the problems. It is an opportunity to announce write offs, set the bar and expectations low and then over-perform. Thorburn should take full advantage of this initial period of goodwill to be quite clear what his plan is for Yorkshire and Clydesdale to end the uncertainty for customers, colleagues and investors.