Showing posts with label RBSG. Show all posts
Showing posts with label RBSG. Show all posts

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

Where have all the global retail banks gone?

Where have all the global retail banks gone? The banks that had the ambition to become truly global retail banks. What happened to HSBC and ‘The World’s Local Bank’? (see HSBC goes back to its roots ) It isn’t only HSBC that has lost the appetite to be a global retail bank but also Citibank, Standard Chartered, Barclays and RBS amongst others have made it clear that they no longer have that aspiration. Each of them has and continues to be in the process of selling off or closing down selected retail banking operations across the globe.

So what made some of the largest banks in the world consider becoming a global retail bank?

Myth 1: Banking is the same all over the world

For a long time the myth has been actively peddled by consultants and banking applications salespeople that retail banking is the same the world over. After all a loan is a loan, a mortgage is a mortgage and a savings account is a savings account wherever they are in the world – aren’t they?

On the surface this appears to be true. The definition of a residential mortgage is fundamentally the same wherever you are in the world. However the process to take out that loan, the regulations that must be complied with and how the bank treats the mortgage asset is unique to each country. For example in the UK most loans are not securitised whereas in the US Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac play a role in almost every mortgage. The role that notaries play in the sales process in Spain is quite different from that which solicitors perform in the UK. Santander found this out to their cost when they replaced Abbey National’s banking platforms with Partenon, the Santander European retail banking platform. Significant parts of the banking platform had to customised to meet the different way that business is conducted in the UK compared to Spain. The ease with which Partenon could be implemented was a core part of the business case for the acquisition of Abbey by Santander. It turned out to be a lot more expensive and took a lot longer than envisaged.

 Likewise Bradford & Bingley and Barclays both found out separately that implementing a US mortgage application in the UK market was nigh on impossible with both writing off the complete cost of the implementation after many years and millions of pounds being spent trying to modify the applications to meet the local requirements. They had wanted to believe what the mortgage platform sales person had told them.

Both Citibank and HSBC decided to address the problem a different way by building their own custom global retail banking platforms. Neither of them succeeded in delivering a single core banking platform that has been rolled out to all their retail operations but hundreds of millions of pounds (if not billions) were spent trying to achieve that. Neither programme was completed.

As has previously been mentioned, Santander has come the closest to achieving this is. The Santander Partenon platform has been implemented for their European and parts of their US operations. For their South American operations Santander recognised that bending and force fitting Partenon was not going to be a viable option. Instead they needed to develop a different platform Altair but even this needs significant customisation for each new implementation.

Even when looking to implement in only one different country and with more modern architectures than HSBC, Citi or Santander were working with, one of the world’s largest platform vendors, SAP, has found it far more difficult and expensive to implement a core banking system than was envisaged as has been illustrated by the troubled programmes at Commonwealth Bank (Australia), Postbank (Germany) and Nationwide Building Society (UK). Commonwealth Bank has achieved the implementation and is now reaping the benefits (see CBA proves case for core banking replacement)  

Myth 2: Retail Banking is highly profitable

Politicians and consumer lobbyists across the world continue to complain that banks make excessive profits. When the total profit that the large banks make is looked at the numbers can seem very large but when you look at the margin being made it presents a very different picture. Retail banking is only really profitable when operated at scale. It is for a very good reason that in most countries the retail banking market is dominated by a small number of large banks. The costs of capital, of meeting global and local regulations, setting up branch and back office infrastructures, of putting in place the IT systems, of either creating or joining the payments infrastructure are huge. The risks and returns for large banks entering a new market and building a customer base from scratch are very unattractive. This and the myth below are two reasons why the large global banks have been selling or closing their operations in many countries – they simply didn’t have the scale and couldn’t see a way to get to the scale to make the business attractive.

Myth 3: Global brands matter to retail customers

The global banks that have entered local markets have been under the misapprehension that the power of their global brand would be sufficient to make local customers change their primary banking relationship to them. HSBC is the bank that spent the most money in trying to make this true with their ‘The World’s local bank’ campaign. Despite all that money being spent they discovered that it wasn’t true and have and are withdrawing from countries where they could not build enough scale. Citi discovered this to their cost in countries such as Spain, Germany, Poland and Turkey where they could not get local customers to move to them. (see Citi in Europe). The reality is that the majority of customers want to bank with local banks with all the perceived benefits of local and national regulation and the knowledge that the bank is not going to disappear if Head Office decides that the operation in that country is not making enough money.

What of the future of global retail banking?

So does all this mean the end of global retail banks? In terms of a Barclays UK customer walking into an Absa branch in Capetown and transacting as if they were a local customer or a Santander UK customer walking into a branch in Sao Paulo then that is not something that the banks are willing to invest in, nor do they see sufficient demand to justify it. In terms of banks having significant retail presences in other geographies then there won’t be too many banks that will do that – HSBC and Santander being the exceptions.

Santander stands out as the leader in global retail banking particularly given that it is a  Spanish bank where the profits from its retail bank in the UK exceed those of its local market. Despite the death of Emilio Botin it doesn’t appear that that strategy is going to change with Ana Botin fully supporting the direction he set with ambition to expand further globally particularly in the US and Poland.

Friday, 16 May 2014

RBS forced to sell Citizens ending the most successful UK retail banking foray into US market

British businesses don’t have a great track record in breaking into the US retail market. You only have to look at the disastrous foray that the Marks & Spencer acquisition of Brooks Brothers was, Tesco’s humiliating and expensive attempt with the Fresh & Easy brand and, most recently, the failure of Yo Sushi! to realise how difficult it is for firms with strong brands in their domestic markets to make it across the pond.

The retail banking track record is no better with Barclays, Lloyds and Natwest all quitting the US in the late 1980s and 1990s. Losses from the acquisition of Crocker drove Midland Bank into the arms of HSBC. Even HSBC has not been immune to the problem with the disastrous acquisition of subprime Household continuing to hurt the bank to this day.

It is quite ironic then that RBSG is being forced to exit the one reasonably successful move into retail and commercial banking that British banks have made in the US. Whilst Fred Goodwin, the former CEO of RBSG, has been criticised for much of the way that he ran the global banking group (particularly paying over the odds for ABN Amro just as the wholesale markets were closing down) his strategy for building a presence in the US retail and commercial banking sector should be heralded as one his smarter moves.

Rather than trying to take on the large US retail banks where they were, at that time, competing aggressively with each other in New York, California, Texas and Florida, Goodwin decided to build his beachhead in the Mid-Atlantic by the acquisition of Citizens Financial Group. A series of small but strategically significant acquisitions followed that expanded it into New England and the Midwest. Citizens is now the 15th largest commercial banking organisation in the US. Whilst there have been challenges including writedowns following the acquisition of Charter One and recent issues with the way that capital is planned, overall Citizens is a highly capitalised and profitable bank. Yes its capital is under deployed but that is addressable. Indeed its reputation with its customers is far better than RBS’ in its own domestic market.

It is a great shame then for RBSG that due to having to take state intervention and becoming largely nationalised, primarily due to the acquisition of ABN Amro and the disastrous business in Ireland, that RBSG is being forced by the EU to dispose of its ownership of Citizens by the end of 2016.

As the first step of moving towards this in January 2014 Citizens sold off 103 branches in the Chicago area to US Bancorp.

 It has been announced that the next step will be to float or sell 20-25% of its share of Citizens. A flotation is more likely as there have been few signs of interest from potential buyers. However for Canadian, Japanese or Spanish banks that want to significantly grow their presence particularly in the Midwest and given that it is a forced sale it could be an interesting opportunity.

The flotation will help to rebuild its balance sheet, but the sale is what is really needed as that could release more than $3bn of capital, which would help RBSG reduce the government holding in the bank.

This is all a sad ending to what could have been had RBSG scaled back its ambition to be global investment bank.

As a footnote, British banks should not give up on being able to build a presence in the US retail and commercial banking market. RBSG has shown that it can be done. Barclays is having success with its Barclaycard US operation building scale to take on the other cards providers, however this is a monoline not a full service retail banking offering.

The British banks can also look to the Spanish banks, Santander and BBVA which with respectively the acquisition of Sovereign Bank and Compass Bank, are demonstrating that it is possible for Europeans banks to build a presence in the US retail banking market. It takes time, patience and recognition that whilst both the US and European markets have the words ‘retail banking’ in their names that they are quite different.

Thursday, 24 April 2014

The challenges facing the next RBS CIO

With the news that Mike Errington, CIO of RBSG, is retiring the bank will be looking for a replacement. The new CIO will have an overflowing inbox, so for those considering taking on the role what are some of the challenges that he or she will have to face?

The immediate on-going work is to ensure the stability of the existing systems. Having had a number of serious, customer-impacting outages over the last few years (including a problem with Ulster Bank ATMs on the day this was written), the work of applying patches to and building resilience into both hardware and software needs to continue. RBS is not the only bank that in earlier times avoided doing maintenance as a way of saving costs and subsequently is feeling the impact of doing that in terms of reliability of systems.

The second tactical exercise is the simplification of the IT infrastructure. However this is far easier said than done as the IT systems have evolved over many decades, creating great complexity and the number of people who understand the older systems and how they interrelate is rapidly declining both as the result of retirement and cost cutting within the bank. Simplification is about retiring and rationalising systems and infrastructure. Given the complexity that exists this is alike disarming a booby-trapped Second World War bomb requiring both high levels of skills and nerves of steel.

Both of these steps are akin to re-arranging the deckchairs on the Titanic, given the ages of the systems. There is no doubt that there has been significant underinvestment in IT since way before the RBS/Natwest integration. Whoever is the new CIO they should use the opportunity of as part of their taking the role to negotiate a commitment to a wholesale replacement of the core retail banking system as the likes of CBA (Commonwealth Bank of Australia), Nationwide Building Society and Deutsche Bank have carried out. However this would involve spending measured in the low to mid billions of pounds and a programme taking 3-5 years to execute. This is where making such an essential change becomes particularly difficult specifically for RBS as RBS is not just any bank, it is a state-owned bank. Such is the political pressure to see the bank returned profitably to the private sector and within the first couple of years of the next government i.e. almost certainly by the end of 2018, that it is highly unlikely that the funding for such a major investment programme will get approval from the key shareholder. However that is what both the CIO and the CEO should be looking for if RBS is to once again become a truly competitive UK bank.

There are however other major transformation programmes that the new CIO will have to pick up, drive and deliver.

Having negotiated an extension of the deadline to the end of 2016 for the disposal of the 308 branches that RBS was forced by the EU to sell as a result of receiving state aid, creating a separate clone of the RBS systems for the new Williams & Glyn’s bank to run on is another top priority for the new CIO. This is not dissimilar to the exercise that Lloyds Banking Group had to perform to create the platform for TSB to run on. However the Lloyds Banking Group platforms were in a far better state than the RBS systems benefitting from coming on the back of creating a single set of systems for the Lloyds TSB/HBoS merger. Even having that advantage for Lloyds Banking Group creating the separate TSB platform was not simple or easy with the eventual cost being in the order of £2bn. Delivering the William and Glyn’s separation to the 2016 deadline will be a major achievement.

This is not the only separation programme that the CIO will have to oversee. The IPO of the Citizens business in the US in Q4 2014 and the complete disposal by the end of 2016 will also need to be executed. This will entail the disengaging of Citizens from the Group systems.

In addition there is the question of what to do with Ulster Bank. The preferred option is to dispose of it by selling it to one of the challenger Irish banks e.g. Permanent TSB, Danske Bank. If that is to go ahead then the new CIO will have to look at the separation of Ulster Bank from the Group systems and supporting the clone until it is integrated into the buyers' systems.

One of the core strategies of RBSG is to scale back the investment bank, reducing costs to be aligned with the smaller bank and to return the bank to be more focused on the UK and supporting UK businesses. This will inevitably require changes to the investment banking platforms as businesses are closed or sold off. To achieve the reduction in costs and the required flexibility as volume drops will almost inevitably mean looking at further outsourcing of platforms and operations to third parties.

On top of the RBSG specific initiatives the new CIO will also face the plethora of transformation programmes and projects that will need to be implemented as a result of regulatory changes. One of the core ones will be the implementation of ring-fencing once that is fully defined. This will mean a significant change in the governance of RBSG and there is a question as to whether the role of Group CIO can persist under the new rules, requiring in a significant restructuring of Group Operations.

All of this will need to be delivered whilst digital, mobile and the use of data analytics for both competitive advantage and risk management continue to move at pace in an increasingly competitive banking market.

The new RBS CIO will need to face up to this hugely challenging environment all within the constraints of  a bank operating very much in the public spotlight, with the need to rebuild trust and the financial constraints imposed by  having the government as the largest shareholder. Only the bravest should apply.

 

 

 

Sunday, 2 March 2014

Why 0% BT cards and teaser rates have no role to play in customer centric banks

The announcement by Ross McEwan, RBSG CEO, that RBS and Natwest will remove teaser rates from savings products and scrap 0% interest credit card deals is another step on the road to recovery for RBSG. RBSG is not the first banking group to identify the unfairness for existing loyal customers when these types of offers are made to new customers. It is however the first of the Big Five UK banks to make this stand.

Banks that scrap short term special introductory rates on products for customers, while they position this as for the benefit of existing customers are not simply being altruistic. They are doing this because they know that by adopting a customer- rather than a product-centric approach to running their bank there can be a significant improvement in the long term profitability of their businesses.

Over the past few years there has been a significant price war in the 0% Balance Transfer (BT) credit card market. As one competitor has extended the length of the 0% interest period by one month the next has extended it a further month. Six months ago the market thought that no one would go further than a 28 month (2 years three months) period but it has now got to the point where Barclaycard is offering a 31 month interest free period. It could be argued that this is really good news for customers as fierce competition is driving better deals for consumers. However what is interesting to note is that the top three places in the BT card table are all being offered by one of the Big Four banks - Barclays, HSBC and Lloyds Banking Group. With their very large deposit and current account bases they have large amounts of low cost money to lend which they, it could be said, are using to keep other competitors out, particularly the smaller players who have to resort to the wholesale markets to fund these loans. By extending the periods so long it makes it too expensive for smaller players to compete.

But why are the big banks so keen to lend customers money apparently free for so long? There is of course an up front a fee based on a percentage of the balance being paid - in the case of Barclaycard it is 3.5% which is reduced to 2.99% by a refund (nothing like simplicity!). What this gives the banks offering these products is short term fees, which, with interest rates being so low, fee income is particularly important for short term profits. None of the banks that offers these products has a competitive APR (Annual Percentage Rate) for additional transactions. The banks also know that these are customers who do not pay off their credit cards every month otherwise they would not have got a balance to transfer in the first place. Until recent regulation came into place forcing banks to pay off the most expensive debt first (in this case the new transactions not the 0% balance) this was almost a licence for banks to make money as every payment customers made was used to pay off the 0% balance meaning every new tranaction that was rolled over the month end would continue to rack up high interest rate charges. Even with the change in legislation, whilst these cards are positioned as a way for customers to pay off their debts, the banks concerned are certainly hopeful that their customers will continue to use their credit cards accruing the bank interchange and other fees for every transaction as well as building a large balance for when the 0% interest rate expires.

The problem with BT customers is that they have had the nous to transfer the balance for a 0% period. This means that they are likely to be price conscious and therefore when the next good deal comes along or when their free period ends some of them are likely to be off again to the next bank or credit card company offering a good deal. Others are likely to rack up debts that they cannot afford and go into arrears. For a bank that is looking to develop long term mutually profitable relationships with its customers the majority of these are the wrong type of customers. These are not customers who are looking to or have the money to take out other products from the bank. Banks who offer these types of products are, on the whole, product-centric. Banks who the only credit card they offer is a Balance Transfer is not customer centric.

Moving onto the removal of teaser rates from savings products. The primary reason banks offer short term attractive rates is to build volumes of deposits in order to be able to lend the money out to other customers in the form of a loan or mortgage. It is also a way of raising the brand of the bank by getting it into the best price tables, on the first screen of the aggregator websites such as Moneysupermarket.com and getting it mentioned by Money Savings Expert Martin Lewis. However being successful at doing this can have at least two downsides. Firstly the bank can end up with more low or no margin deposits than it has the demand to lend which leads to losses and secondly it attracts price sensitive customers aka, price tarts. The problem with price tarts, as the name implies, is that as soon as the introductory rate expires they will be off taking their money and giving it to the next bank that has decided to get offer a teaser rate. Just like the with Balance Transfer Card these are not the types of customers that a long term profitable bank should be built upon. With both product strategies it is a case of quantity being sacrificed for quality and taking a product perspective over a customer one.

However  it would be wrong to think that there are no downsides to a strategy that strictly adheres to the principle that existing customers should never be disadvantaged over new customers. In 2001 Nationwide Building Society, under the previous CEO, introduced a policy that all its mortgage offers would be made available to both new and existing customers. It resulted in retaining a higher proportion of its mortgage customers than other banks but with significantly impacted profitability. Nationwide has moved away from that purist implementation to a more pragmatic approach. It doesn't seek to be in the top of the price tables for its products but rather it seeks out customers that are looking for a long term relationship with the building society as its Save to Buy offering for first time buyers illustrates. The result has been a very significant growth in profitable business.

Ross McEwen sees the turnaround of RBSG as taking at least another five years. The announcements of the changes to the retail product strategy will potentially have a negative short term effect for the retail bank, but in terms of moving RBSG towards being a customer centred bank these are sensible steps as long as the shareholders and other interested parties have the patience to see them through. What he has recognised is that 0% cards and teaser rates have no role to play in a customer centric bank.

Wednesday, 29 January 2014

Back to the future - a return to supermarket banking or the end of banking for all?

The report on the BBC News website that Barclays is looking at potentially closing 400, or a quarter, of its UK branches which was subsequentally retracted and replaced with a statement that Barclays is 'considering closing branches to reflect the that more customers are now accessing financial services online and via mobile devices',  reflects the sensitivity the big 5 banks have to announcing branch closures and comes on the back of a statement in November 2013 that in August 2014 it is to open four branches within Asda (the UK arm of the US supermarket behemoth Walmart), closing the standalone branches in the same towns. The model of putting bank branches into supermarkets brings back memories of the wave of supermarket banking experiments that took hold in the UK at the end of the last century with the launch of Sainsbury’s Bank (backed by Bank of Scotland), Tesco Personal Financial Services (backed by Royal Bank of Scotland) and Safeway Banking (backed by Abbey National). At that time the supermarkets were seen as a serious challenger to the established banks (despite being backed by them) and the world of banking was going to fundamentally change. It was also the time of the tie-up of Abbey National with Costa Coffee to create new and destination branches – very much building on the revolutionary Occasio branches that WaMu (Washington Mutual) launched in the US.
 
So what happened to all these new visions of banking? Abbey National was taken over by Santander who quickly took the axe to the partnership with Costa, Safeway was acquired byMorrisons who closed down the financial services arm and the remains of Washington Mutual following the financial crash of 2008 were acquired by JP Morgan Chase who effectively bulldozed the Occasio branches returning to a far more business like branch format.
 
Tesco Bank (as it became) with its 6.5m customers continues to make significant investments into becoming a full service retail bank. Sainsbury’s Bank bought out the Lloyds Banking Group share (that Lloyds inherited when it took on HBoSfollowing the financial crisis) in May 2013, however it made it clear that it has no intention of becoming a full service bank and is not planning to offer mortgages or current accounts.Sainsbury’s appear to have no intention of turning its supermarkets into bank branches.
 
In the meantime Marks & Spencer launched in late 2012 M&S Bank operated by HSBC offering a fee-paying current account. With Marks & Spencer continuing to struggle with their fashion lines the retailer is increasingly being measured principally as a supermarket. The jury is still out on how successful M&S Bank but there are no indications that it has been a runaway success.
So why is Barclays trying to re-visit the supermarket banking model? The reality is that it has very little to do with wanting to be in supermarket banking and much more to do with finding a way to reduce their costs by closing their branches. Barclays will benefit from the ability to sell or end the lease on the branches and will have significantly lower costs fromhaving an in store branch than a standalone one. It is also true that this move should make it easier for customers to visit their branches. As high streets increasingly become parking unfriendly through the use of parking restrictions combined with prohibitive parking costs where parking exists bank branches are becoming harder to just pop into or even to access (Metro Bank with their drive through branch opened in the mecca that is Slough would beg to differ). Typically supermarkets have large amounts of parking which will make it easier for customers to visit their banks if they are within a supermarket. It is not only the difficulty of parking that is reducing the number of visits by retail customers to banks. The increasing comfort and acceptance by consumers of all ages of carrying out activities online and the increased penetration of smart phones and tablets means that there are increasingly few reasons for customers to visit branches – cash withdrawals, making payments, getting foreign currency, paying in money into accounts no longer require a physical visit to a manned branch. Increasingly it is only at those key life moments such as buying a house, getting married, getting a loan, opening a bank account that a visit to a bank branch is necessary and some of that is driven not by the desire to talk to someone or to get advice but by the continued legal requirement to provide a physical signature on documents.
 
For those important financial transactions such as arranging a mortgage or a loan it is highly questionable how conducive a branch within a supermarket will be to have a meaningful discussionExchanging confidential information over the sound of the tills ringing and the promotional announcements over the loudspeakers is not what customers are looking for. Neither is taking out a mortgage or a loan one of those spontaneous purchases that supermarkets rely on to increase basket size. As a mother pushes her trolley around with her two screaming toddlers in tow she is unlikely to suddenly decide that she would like to talk to her banker about a loan.
 
However Barclays might have liked to position the opening of branches within ASDA supermarkets as for the convenience of their customers, with the review of their branch network (and the denied closing of 400 branches) with no confirmation that all closed branches will re-open in Asda stores, Barclays are making a statement of intent about the role of branches going forward.



Had the report of the potential for 400 branches being closed stood, Barclays would have been credited with the courage to be the first of major high street banks to make its intentions clear. This would have made it easier for the remainder of the big five banks to annouce their own closure plans. The other banks have hinted at their desire to close branches but none have been bold enough to say how many. They will eventually have to do this because it is an undisputable fact that less and less customers visit their branches. Many of those that visit their branches only do so because there are not currently convenient alternative ways to carry out transactions such as paying in cheques. However with the increasing penetration of smartphones with cameras built in even paying in cheques may soon no longer require a visit to a branch.



The future of branch  base banking is at a cross roads where the big five banks must decide whether they wish to continue to support customers who want to use branches or whether they should encourage those customers to move to banks that see branch banking as fundamental to what they do such as Metro Bank, Handelsbanken, Umpqua Bank (in the US) and Bendigo Bank (in Australia). It maybe that the end of the universal bank serving all segments of customers is in sight.

Monday, 27 January 2014

How to be a successful challenger bank


So assuming you have got the capital raised and have got through the regulatory hurdles necessary to be a challenger bank what the critical factors for success?

Pick your battleground. Given that the big five banks (in the UK) or the Four Pillars (in Australia) or the equivalent in other markets are so called because they have the scale and the established track record trying to take them head on at their own game is a sure fire guarantee of failure. To paraphase the Chinese general Sun Tsu in his ‘Art of War’ only attack the enemy head on if you have a three to one advantage.  A bank that wants to take on the banks across their entire retail customer base is setting itself up to fail. The established big players have the depth of capital and the customer base to play the long game and can besiege the challenger bank until they have used up all their capital and their investors patience.

For challenger banks the better strategy is to ‘fragment’ i.e. to pick off part of the established banks’s customer base, preferably one of the more profitable segments.

By not having a clear customer segment strategy but simply competing for business that can be won from the established banks can end up with the so-called challenger winning the unprofitable business that the big five would happily like to exit.  

Handelsbanken have never sought to be a replacement for the big five banks in the UK for all their customers. They have deliberately adopted a strategy that focuses on small businesses in largely market towns where customers like to use branches, have face to face contact and are prepared to pay for that service. The result has been very high customer satisfaction along with high profitability.

First Direct (albeit owned by HSBC) set out to be a bank for customers that weren’t interested in visiting branches, liked to be able to talk to a person, liked a high quality of service and were prepared to pay for it. First Direct is very rarely at the top of the price tables. Equally First Direct has not tried to grow its customer base aggressively with its market share relatively stable and relatively small. What they have ended up with is the highest Net Promoter Score amongst the banks.

Consider competing from a position of better insight. The established banks have the scale, the benefits of a high margin back book and the deep pockets so competing purely on price is not a long term strategy. Neither is competing simply on not being one of them. Some of the legacy problems the established banks have is their data has grown up from individual product systems, there is a culture of not sharing data between organisational silos, their systems have often grown from a series of acquisitions and are based on old technology. This gives the challenger bank a real opportunity. Designing the bank from the start to be based around the customer not the product, designing the data infrastructure around the ability to analyse, model and forecast not only the customer, but the risk, the external environment and the way the business performance will be managed will give the challenger bank a significant advantage. By having better customer insight offers can be better tailored to what the customer actually wants (resulting in a reduced Cost Per Acquisition), pricing can be based on individual or segment risk (not only for lending but also for deposit pricing) and retention of customers can be significantly higher.

A good current/checking account offering is not optional. Without it being a real challenger is impossible. Unless you have a transactional product, one where the customer interacts with you frequently, you are not going to be able to own the customer relationship and whilst you might win in the short term it will only be for that. When you ask any customer who they bank with their first response will be the bank where their salary is paid into and which they use daily to buy goods and services with.

If the basis of competition is around taking  mortgages and savings market shares off the established banks, then effectively regardless of the ownership structure, this is a building society offering. Building societies have been around for over a hundred years and their attempts to be challenger banks can be seen in the demise of the likes of Alliance & Leicester, Bradford & Bingley and Northern Rock.

Nationwide Building Society has shown that by having a good current account offering that they are a real challenger to the established banks. (Nationwide has done more than that as well but the current account has been a key building block to their success).

What’s more the current account offering needs to be designed to attract the customer segment that has been selected as part of the fragment strategy.

Most customers see one current account being the same as another. A lot of customers will also have been made more cynical because of the ‘value-added’ or packaged current accounts that were sold in the run up to the financial crash. These were accounts where it was questionable whether the ‘added value’ was worth the monthly fee. There are very few ways of differentiating a current account but certainly for a challenger bank it needs to be designed for being used on mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets. The established banks, whilst they may have deeper pockets, have old and under-maintained systems which should give challenger banks an advantage (see the comments about IT below)

The danger of coming out with a simple, low function current account is that the challenger bank ends up with the low income, highly unprofitable customers that established banks are obliged by governments to offer to the unbanked. While this may make the challenger bank popular with government it will do nothing to help investors and if that is not the customer segment being aimed for will only lead to brand confusion.

Design the business from the outside in. One of the biggest challenges the existing banks have is their organisation structure which is built around silos, largely product-based and very hard to change. This brings inflexibility and high cost. Challenger banks have a real opportunity to do something different, even if they have come into existence by acquiring an existing player. The way that the bank’s processes are designed should be driven by the experience that its customers, partners (intermediaries, aggregators, suppliers) want and then decide how it can be delivered profitably. Experience doesn’t just apply to getting a customer to purchase a product but also what happens after that. On-boarding is even more important now for retention, profitability and customer advocacy, particularly where business comes from brokers or comparison websites.

What typically happens is that organisations where there is any conscious design are built from the perspective of the bank and how it is easiest to manage, not from the customer’s or strategic supplier’s perspective. The challenger who gets this right will only be able to attract customers at a lower cost (reduced CPA), will reduce customer attrition and achieve higher customer referral rates.

Invest in talent and experience. Everybody thinks they are an expert in retail banking because everyone has a bank account. This is the equivalent of saying that everybody is a doctor because they have a body. If retail banking was really that easy and that profitable there would be no need for challenger banks. It is not only since the financial crash in 2008 that people have looked down on bankers and treated them as of less value than estate agents or tabloid journalists. Prior to the crash many banks employed retailers because they thought bankers were just staff who didn’t know how to sell properly. A probable consequence of the introduction of this retail talent was the PPI (Payment Protection Insurance) and the Structured Investments scandals, where sales techniques borrowed from the retail industry were applied to the banking industry. There is no doubt that the banking industry can benefit from the insights and experience of industries that deliver better customer service and use technology more smartly but that needs to be counterbalanced with deep experience of retail banking. Current account-based retail banking is far from the same as simply attracting deposits and selling mortgages. If retail banking was so easy why have the building societies (Nationwide excepted – see comment above) been so unsuccessful in making a significant dent in the established banks market share? To be a successful challenger bank investment in real expertise of current account banking is not optional.

Just because technology can do something doesn’t mean customers want it. There are plenty of digital gurus out there who are coming up with very imaginative ways of doing banking whether it is different ways of making payments (at least once a day someone somewhere in the world announces a new way of making payments), identifying the customer, wearing technology, and interacting in branches, but just because you can do it doesn’t mean you should. Unless it makes it more convenient for the customer (and many of the novel ways of making payments are cool but take longer than conventional ways of paying) then don’t do it. Being sexy is not a requirement to be a challenger bank.

Start from the goal of zero IT ownership - exploit the cloud, SaaS and outsourcing. The established banks have very expensive and old IT systems which they need to maintain. This comes from the legacy where banks were amongst the first organisations to use IT and therefore had no option but to build up their own expertise. With the maturity of the both the IT and the outsourcing industries there is no reason for banks to own or manage their own IT. Given the problems established banks have had with their legacy systems over the last few years their competency as an IT provider has been seriously tested. Not only does putting IT out to third parties save overall money but it also allows the challenger banks to focus on what is important and that is the provision of banking to their customers.

For many banks using the cloud to provide banking services has been unthinkable. However Commonwealth Bank of Australia (CBA), the former public sector bank, has its internet banking hosted by Amazon. (See http://www.itsafinancialworld.net/2012/12/commonwealth-bank-of-australia-run-by.html) If a traditionally conservative bank has done that why wouldn’t challenger banks adopt that approach?

Metro Bank, one of the challenger banks in the UK, has bought the use of its core banking service on a per transaction basis (SaaS – Software as a Service). Its IT is outsourced. When the time it took to Metro Bank to launch its current account is compared with Tesco Bank (which is building its own platform based on a core banking package) then there is a clear argument for considering SaaS.

 Taking modern technology and commercial approaches should give challengers a great advantage; however it isn’t always turning out that way.  A number of challenger banks are being created by the acquisition of assets from existing players. They would argue that by having existing proven platforms that they can be up and running faster than starting from scratch. This is true in the short term but rather than being able to offer a truly differentiated service what they offer is a smaller but more expensive (due to the smaller scale and, in some cases, having to pay one of the big 5 banks to support the IT) version of the established banks. This is the situation that both TSB (the former Verde Lloyds Banking Group 630 branches) and William & Glyns (the 316 RBS branches) find themselves in.  (See http://www.itsafinancialworld.net/2013/07/can-tsb-be-challenger-bank.html) In the longer term this is not a viable solution for a challenger bank.

Challenger banks who have acquired legacy IT, need a transformational CIO working alongside the bank’s executives, to put in place a plan to get off the legacy and onto modern platforms enabled for mobile and digital as quickly as possible. They also need to be experts in strategic supplier management. The challenger banks need to educate their investors that this is not optional.

Have an exclusive relationship with major investors and get them committed for the long haul. There are plenty of hedge, private equity and sovereign funds who are interested in investing in challenge banks, however a number of them have placed investments in more than one challenger bank in the same sector in the same country. What does that say about their commitment?

To build a sustainable challenger bank will take time particularly given the limited availability of off the shelf banking technology and the time it takes to implement a new business model. Equally getting a return on these investments is not going to be quick, so investors who aren’t in for the long haul should be politely shown the door.

This isn’t meant to be an exhaustive list of what a challenger bank should be looking at but highlights some of the areas where the difference can be between success and failure.

Saturday, 12 October 2013

Why the new Payments Systems Regulator needs to avoid rushing in change


The UK government has announced that the bank dominated Payments Council is to be replaced by a competition-focused utility style regulator for payment systems, under the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA), part of the Bank of England. This new body will assume its powers in late 2014 and will be fully operational by Spring 2015. The focus will be on providing competition, innovation and responsiveness to consumer demands in the payments system. It is hoped by the government that the Payments Council will in turn reform itself into a more traditional trade body.

Talk of reforming the payments system has been going on for a very long time with the Cruikshank Report into competition in banking  back in 2000 recommending the setting up a full blown payments regulator, the so-called ‘Payco’. That recommendation was never acted upon, not only because of the active lobbying by the banking industry but also because of the size of the investment required to set up the regulator and the fear of disruption to the payments system in the process. Little progress has been made since 2000 except the slow introduction of Faster Payments and the reluctant abandoning of end of cheques, which had been due in 2018.

The new Payments Systems Regulator may want to show that whilst the creation of the body has taken a long time that it is a body with a mission and at pace. However whoever heads this body should be wary of rushing in change too quickly.

The UK has one of the best set of payments systems in the world – in many ways the envy of the rest of the world. After 9/11 it wasn’t the fact that the Twin Towers had come down or that the US had been attacked on its own soil and that hundreds had died that nearly brought down the US economy, but rather the grounding of all the airlines. In the US at that time (and even today)  because the economy was highly reliant upon cheques (or checks if you are outside the UK) the fact that the planes could not fly the cheques raised on one bank to deliver them back to their originating bank for clearing meant that the US economy almost ground to a halt.  The flow of money was stopped. Given similar circumstances in the UK the impact on the UK economy would have been far less. The UK has a highly resilient, highly reliable payments infrastructure. Britain should be proud of the long history of a payments infrastructure that is only invisible to most because it works and customers take it for granted that when they make a payment it will arrive where it is meant to in the time that it is meant to. This is despite the fact that the systems have, primarily, been built by those 'empires of evil', as portrayed by the politicians, the big four banks (Barclays, Royal Bank of Scotland, Lloyds Banking Group and HSBC).

However the UK payments infrastructure has been slow to change, has failed to grasp innovation and has had to be dragged and screaming towards the twenty first century. The Payments Council dominated by the Big Four banks has had the unenviable task of leading by consensus and with each of the Big Four being competitors has rarely got to consensus and where it has it has been through a suboptimal compromise.

The new regulator has the challenge of addressing the level of competition in the industry, increasing the innovation and making sure that the consumer’s voice is heard.
Despite all the reviews and all the parliamentary committees which have reviewed and reviled the banking industry, a forensic analysis of the payments industry has not really been carried out. Whilst the small banks and building societies who process low volumes of transactions and the new challenger banks may complain they are unfairly charged for access to the payments system the arguments seem to be based on little data and a lot of emotion.
One of the first tasks that the new regulator should commission is an independent, forensic analysis of the costs to both build and operate the existing infrastructure. The natural instinct will be to use one of the Big 4 accountancy firms to do this, however they are so dependent upon fees from the big banks that it is questionable whether they will be seen to be independent. The purpose of this analysis of the costs will be to determine what a fair cost to use the infrastructure should be (allowing for investment to build the next generation infrastructure) and compare that against what is being charge today.
The new regulator has an unenviable task because there is a clear conflict between significantly reducing the cost of using the infrastructure and encouraging investment and innovation into that infrastructure. It is analogous to Ed Miliband, the UK leader of the Labour opposition, saying that he will freeze the cost of utility bills whilst still expecting those utilities companies to invest in green technologies and maintaining and upgrading the creaking infrastructure.
This brings into question whether there can be real and speedy investment and innovation into the payments infrastructure while the big four banks still collectively own it. Over the last forty or so years they have demonstrated that getting to consensus has inhibited progress and has compromised innovation. There has also been a chronic lack of investment in building the next generation infrastructure. Is there any reason to believe that this will change?
The new regulator needs to decide whether the three objectives assigned to the regulator of creating competition, encouraging innovation and responding to consumer demand can be met while the ownership of the payments infrastructure remains with the big four banks.  A solution could be that the big four banks are forced to dispose of the payments infrastructure to an independent business to which they will become customers just like the smaller banks, building societies and challenger organisations. The acquiring organisation will need to demonstrate not only that they have the experience to run the infrastructure the resilience and reliability of which  is of national importance but also have a realistic strategy for the payments industry going forward and how they will fund both innovation and maintenance of that infrastructure whilst actively engaging with consumers. This is not a task for those who are looking for a quick in and out with a healthy profit. Only an organisation that is prepared to run the infrastructure independently of the banking sector for the long term will make any sense.
Without taking a measured, fact driven and courageous approach to changing the payments industry with cross-party support (given the length of time any programme will take to enact) this regulator will be no better than the Payments Council it is replacing. 

Sunday, 1 September 2013

Another blow to Government ambitions for SME lending as Nationwide postpones launch to 2016

The announcement that Nationwide Building Society is postponing its push into SME banking until 2016 is a blow for the UK coalition government, particularly coming on the back of disappointing SME lending figures this summer. The Nationwide suspension comes despite the new governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney, announcing that the largest eight banks and building societies (which includes Nationwide) will be allowed to hold less capital once above the 7% level to encourage more lending to the SME segment.

This builds on the bad news earlier in the year for SME lending that Santander was withdrawing from the purchase of the RBSG branches. These branches have been selected specifically for their SME focus. The uncertainty as to who, if anyone, will replace Santander in taking on that business is a further blow. For while the Chancellor has talked about new entrants coming into the UK banking sector and Vince Cable, the Trade Secretary, has pushed for the banks to increase their lending to businesses and even talking about setting up a government funded bank for business, competition in lending to the SME sector has decreased rather than increased. The decision of the Co-op to stop any new lending to corporate sector has been effectively the withdrawal of another player in the market.

But should anyone feel surprised that this is the case? As one of his parting gifts the former Governor of the Bank of England, Lord King of Lothbury, pushed for banks to hold far higher levels of capital than they did prior to the financial crisis. The newly formed PRA then went on to enforce this. With the Nationwide, somewhat surprisingly given the risk averse nature of its book, being told to hold significantly more capital than it has been used to and with a growing residential and buy to let market, both of which require far less capital to be held than for SME banking and represent a far less risky way to make money, it is no real surprise to see that the Nationwide decided there were better places to use its capital at this time.

Of course this is not the whole picture. Nationwide has been for some time been going through the painful process of replacing its core banking platforms. Like Commonwealth Bank of Australia which has declared victory on its implementation of the same system two years late and with a budget that doubled to AUD1.2bn, Nationwide is finding carrying out a full heart, lungs and liver transplant of its systems is not plain sailing. It may well have been that Nationwide has not only delayed the entry into SME banking for financial reasons, but also because the new systems are not ready.

Whilst overall competition in SME banking is reduced there are one or two new entrants that are making their mark, albeit on a relatively small scale. The largest of these is Handelsbanken with in excess of 150 branches and a high level of customer satisfaction despite being very profitable. There is also Aldermore which, whilst keeping a low profile is making  notable progress.  The owners of Aldermore are members of one of the syndicates bidding for the RBSG 316 branches, so the Aldermore approach to banking may get the opportunity to scale up.

The Government may be satisfied that the UK has a safer banking environment but the price that is being paid for the additional regulation, the higher levels of capital and increased interference is that there is not only less competition in SME banking but less lending going to small businesses to fuel the growth of the economy.

Sunday, 11 August 2013

Who should buy the RBS branches?

On the face of it the Lloyds Banking Group's and the Royal Bank of Scotland Group's forced disposal of their branches look quite alike. Even the numbers of branches being disposed of, in a dyselexic way, are the same 631 and 316 respectively. Both were imposed by the European Union as a result of state intervention. to save the banks brought about by the 2008 financial crisis. Both Groups have struggled to find buyers for their branches. Both banks have had potential buyers walk away from their deal late in the day - the Co-op in the case of Lloyds Banking Group and Santander in the case of Royal Bank of Scotland Group. Both are now pursuing floatation of the severed entities due to a lack of interest from potential buyers.

However fundamentally the offerings for potential buyers are different and therefore the people and organisations that should seriously consider and be considered for the acquisitions are quite different.

The reason that Lloyds Banking Group have been instructed to sell 631 branches and their associated customers is because, following their arms being severely twisted by the Government to save HBoS by acquiring it, LBG was left with a very dominant market position in unsecured lending, mortgage and current accounts for consumers whilst being underpinned by government support.

For RBSG selling their 361 branches was both due to the level of government support that required to save them from their self-created problem and their overwhelming dominance of the SME market segment. Thus the customers that RBSG is selling are small and medium sized business customers.

Some might say that retail and SME banking are not that different. Indeed that debate has been running for decades with banks periodically changing where SME banking sits in their organisation between within the retail and within the corporate bank. Business Banking has not sat comfortably in either organisation being neither fish or fowl.

As is being evidenced by Santander in its results, Business Banking is nowhere near as straightforward as retail banking and requires significantly more capital for every loan. Santander who is one of the few banks that has been able to build a global retail banking platform (that has enabled to make numerous successful acquistions across the globe) has found it very challenging to bend their Partenon banking platform to support UK Business Banking customers needs. Indeed it was IT issues that were cited by Santander as the reason that the acquisition of the RBSG branches was halted.

The difference from retail banking extend way beyond just capital and technology and into the most important part of banking - the people who work in it and the skills and competencies they require. It is not impossible to move from retail banking to SME banking, but  it requires a different mindset and different skills.

Another difference between the LBG and the RBSG disposals is the condition of the IT systems. Lloyds Banking Group has, as a result of the acquisition of HBoS and the need to fundamentally reduce costs, been through an exercise of migration and simplification of banking systems. The starting point, the TSB systems, were newer and better designed than either Lloyds Bank, RBS or Natwest systems, so provided LBG with a far better starting position than RBSG finds itself in. The problems that RBSG has had with its banking platforms over the last few years are well documented and have been very obvious to their customers.

Whoever acquires or enters into a joint venture with RBSG needs to recognise that they will need to partner with RBSG IT for at least the next five years as it is very unlikely that moving onto a new platform and separating from the old one could be achieved any faster than that. This means that the acquirer's business will be dependent upon RBSG being able to provide IT services to keep their business going. This was clearly something that Santander found to be unpalatable.

This raises the question of who should acquire RBSG's branches? Given that the deals risks are already high (amount of capital, market risk, IT risk), then when RBSG considers who to partner with then a consideration has to be which of the potential buyers reduces the deal risk the most whilst still offering an attractive commerical proposition. One of the key ways to reduce the risk is to sell to a buyer who fundamentally understands and has a proven track record in SME banking.

Anacap who's bid is led by Alan Hughes the former First Direct (a retail bank) boss also owns Aldermore the UK banks that focuses solely on SME banking. Anacap has the experience of setting up a new SME bank, putting in new platforms and writing profitable business. This has to count for a lot.

The Standard Life bid (teamed with Corsair Capital and Centrebridge) is being led by John Maltby the former head of SME Banking (and Kensington Mortgages the buy-to-let specialist) at Lloyds Banking Group. This consortium also has the backing of the Church Commissioners, though whether this suggests any divine preference is doubtful.

Finally there is the consortium led by Andy Higginson the former Tesco Finance Director who has experience of working with RBSG when he was involved in the launch of Tesco Personal Finance.

Competition in the SME banking market has changed since 2008 when the EU decision to force RBSG to dispose of market share with the increasing presence of Santander, Aldermore and Handelsbanken, it is a very different market with different regulatory requirements.

So for whoever decides to buy the RBSG branches the latin expression could not be more appropriate - caveat emptor!

Friday, 7 June 2013

Will challenger banks make a real impact on UK lending?

Antony Jenkins, the CEO of Barclays, told investors that the challenger banks will fail to make a real impact on the lending market in the UK in the coming years.

His argument was that those who look to acquire the branches available by the forced sale of Lloyds Banking Group and Royal Bank of Scotland branches when customers are using branches less and less in favour of online banking are buying a wasting asset.

Simplistically this is right, however even in markets where customers are carrying out a greater proportion of their banking business online such as The Netherlands, where 50% of branches have been closed, when a customer has a complex financial problem that needs fixing those customers are still showing a strong preference to address these face to face in a branch.

Even in a digital world the branch is still an important part of the marketing and branding for all the world's major banks. Branches are perceived as a reassuring sign of the stability of the bank, that by having a physical presence the bank is not going to disappear overnight.

What Anthony Jenkins did not explore is how the role of the branch is and needs to evolve (something which Barclays as an organisation is very aware of). The challengers recognise that branches are generally under-utilised assets and are being far more creative about their role in the community whether it be for business meetings, book clubs, music soirees or simply somewhere to go for a coffee. Banks such as Oregon's Umpqua (www.umpquabank.com) and Virgin Money with their lounges (http://uk.virginmoney.com/virgin/about-lounges/) are taking forward the thinking on the future of the branch. Antony Jenkins is right that the big five banks are increasingly closing branches but the challengers with their far smaller branch footprint are opening new branches rather than closing them. Handlesbanken (www.handelsbanken.co.uk) have been quietly opening branches and have been having a not insignificant impact on the market particularly on business lending.

When Jenkins referred to the challengers he appeared to limit that to those who might acquire the Lloyds Banking Group and the Royal Bank of Scotland branches, but of course this is not where the only challenge to the lending market is going to come from. Tesco, M&S and Sainsbury's banks already have very large branch networks they just happen to be retail outlets. Betting against these three making a success of their banking business is the height of folly.

Where Jenkins is completely correct is that for a challenger to simply open branches, and specifically traditional branches, would not be a wise move given the evolution of the customer and the banking industry. However the main challengers are not doing that. They are looking at an omni-channel strategy where online, mobile, call centre and branches come together to provide a new and better customer experience. There is a recognition that even in the branch customers may want to access their mobile or online banking services, that digital opens up the range of services that a branch can perform.

Taken at face value Antony Jenkins' comments that challenger will have little real impact on the UK lending industry smacks of complacency which the challenger banks should be delighted to hear. However given Jenkins' experience and knowledge of retail banking the challengers should not underestimate the fight they have on their hands. This can only be good for customers.

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.

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, 21 January 2013

Crunch time for Clyne as Santander considers NAB bid


According to the London Sunday Times, Ana Botin, the CEO of Santander UK, is considering a bid for National Australia Bank's UK businesses Yorkshire and Clydesdale banks.

This comes after Santander withdrew from their bid for the Royal Bank of Scotland 316 branches late in 2012 (see http://www.itsafinancialworld.net/2012/11/for-sale-316-bank-branches-must-go-by.html ) giving the reason the state of the RBSG technology.

Santander in the UK is in the awkward position that having received £4.5bn of capital to complete the acquisition from RBSG from Santander Group in Spain and putting it on the UK balance sheet, the FSA has refused to allow the money to be sent back to Spain. This means that Ana Botin needs to decide what to do with it as Santander in the UK has one of the best capital ratios of UK banks.

Acquiring the UK operations of NAB would make a lot of sense for Santander. Yorkshire and Clydesdale banks would bring business banking market share, which aligns with Botin's ambition to grow a strong business banking business in the UK to take on the big four banks. Santander in the UK has a good track record for successfully acquiring and integrating UK banks starting with Abbey National and more recently Alliance & Leicester and Bradford & Bingley. There would be clearly significant costs savings to be had from Yorkshire and Clydesdale both from moving back office operations into Santander centres and from migrating customers onto Santander IT platforms. Santander has already invested in upgrading their systems to handle business banking in anticipation of the RBSG deal going through so this would be one way to get a return on that investment.

Cameron Clyne, the CEO of National Australia has on many occasions made it clear that he does not see the northern hemisphere operations as part of the long term strategy for the bank. Both Yorkshire and Clydesdale have been starved of much needed investment for many years. However Clyne has, up to now, been reluctant to sell the banks for the prices that buyers want to pay, not wanting to realise the inevitable writedown that would be required with the consequential drop in capital on the balance sheet at a time when capital is king.

However Nab is seen to be falling behind its domestic competitors (Westpac, ANZ and Commonwealth Bank) and Cameron Clyne needs to be seen to be doing something to change that position. Analysts in Australia have been calling for him to dispose of the albatrosses that are Yorkshire and Clydesdale banks.

Cameron Clyne may hope that by the story once again running that Santander is interested in Nab that this may start a bidding war with the likes of the resurrected NBNK and JC Flowers looking to ace Santander. However Santander has a reputation for never over-paying for acquisitions, indeed getting bargains as was the case with both Alliance & Leicester and Bradford & Bingley, so Cameron Clyne cannot hope to get a fat price from Ana Botin.

Should Santander get the Clydesdale and Yorkshire banks it will not be good news for most Nab employees in Scotland and Yorkshire since it will largely be the customers and the business banking skills that Santander will be keeping with the rest being discarded.

With both Cameron Clyne and Ana Botin needing to dmeonstrate to their respective markets their leadership it could be very interesting to see over the next few weeks and months whether a deal can be struck.

Tuesday, 13 November 2012

For Sale: 316 bank branches must go by end of 2013



In June 2010 it was announced that Santander was to buy the branches. Having made the offer, £1.65bn, and completed the local searches (regulatory approval)  when the surveyor's reports came back Santander decided that the RBSG technology estate was in too bad a state (or at least that's the reason they gave) and rather than negotiating a large discount walked away from the deal.

This leaves RBSG in an awkward position. They have just over twelve months to sell or float the branches. Hardly the strongest negotiation position for a seller to be in.

What will any potential buyer get? 1.8m customers, £21.7bn of deposits and 316  branches (2 of the original 318 mysteriously seem to have disappeared - possibly they were in Brigadoon), 240,000 small business accounts and 1,200 corporate banking relationships. This is the equivalent of 5% of the business banking market.

Why would anyone want to buy this business?

SME account customers on average have higher levels of deposits, have higher levels of personal account activity and are more profitable than other customers. They are also more inclined to use branches and want face-to-face contact. Traditionallly this has been a hard sector for new entrants as the Big Four (Barclays , Lloyds Banking Group, RBS/Natwest and HSBC) have dominated the sector and persuading customers to switch (because they have complex relations with their bank) has been difficult. Building an SME banking business from the ground up by encouraging customers to switch from their existing bank is a long slow process as Santander is finding. Therefore for an organisation wishing to enter the market or an existing player wishing to significantly expand their market share this should be highly attractive.

With bank valuations at very low levels, the example of what Cooperative finally got Lloyds Banking Group to settle for and the fixed timescales by which RBSG must agree a deal, this should be a buyer's market and the ability to get the branches for a snip is there. Whilst in 2010 Santander agreed to pay £1.65bn the expectations are that now this deal will be made at around £650m.

Who are the potential buyers?

None of the remaining three of the Big Five banks, Lloyds Banking Group, HSBC or Barclays, even if they wanted to, will be allowed to bid for the business on the grounds of their current market share.

Whilst Virgin Money was in the original competition for the branches, having subsequently bought the 'good bank' elements of Northern Rock, and having expressed initial renewed interest when Santander walked away from the deal, Virgin have effectively rules themselves out. Sir Richard Branson has said that organic growth makes more sense for Virgin Money at this time. Having had to raise large amounts of capital to fund the Northern Rock acuisition it would be very difficult for Virgin to return to the markets and raise even more capital to acquire the RBSG assets. Given the complexity of the integration project for Northern Rock underway it is not all surprising that Virgin has politely withdrawn from the sales process.

Next most often mentioned is Nationwide Building Society. With a track record of growing by the successful acquisition and integration of building societies (Anglian, Portman, Chesire, Derbyshire, Dunfermline to name a few) and positioning itself as different from the banks - more customer friendly and not tarred with all the scandals associated with the Big Five, Nationwide would be welcomed by many as a challenger in the SME banking market. As a mutual going to the markets to raise the large amount of capital could be a significant challenge, but The Cooperative was able to overcome this to acquire the Verde branches from Lloyds Banking Group, not least of all by getting the price significantly reduced.  A factor that may put Nationwide off the deal is the 1,200 corporate banking relationships. This is not a sector that Nationwide currently plays in. Whereas SME banking is often linked quite closely to retail banking and can share a common banking platform, corporate banking is quite different not only in the technology but also in the skills required from the staff.

Nationwide does have the advantage over other potential purchasers that it has spent the last few years investing heavily in a modern core banking system (SAP) which should make migration of the acquisition onto the new platform easier than for Santander. However the new platform isn't finished or fully proven yet, so there would have to be a quite lengthy period where Nationwide would be dependent upon RBS's platform.

JC Flowers, the private equity firm, is also seen as a contender. Having created its One Savings Bank vehicle from the acquisition of Kent Reliance Building Society and having put aside a £1.5bn treasure chest to acquire mortgage books, this money could be re-directed towards the RBSG branches. However the One Savings Bank vehicle is a very small operation and would need to be reversed into the far larger RBSG assets. Neither One Savings Bank or RBSG have modern IT platforms to run the business on so there would need to be a significant investment to make the business a real contender. Going for the SME banking business as the first serious entry into the UK banking market would also raise the risk for JC Flowers. What could be interesting to see is whether JC Flowers could negotiate for a different mix of the branches and customers more towards personal customers and mortgages to make it more attractive to them.

AnaCap Financial Partners LLP, a private-equity backer of Aldermore Bank Plc is also rumoured to be interested. AnaCap has partnered with Blackstone, the world's largest Private Equity firm, to buy banking and insurance assets. Aldermore Bank does not have any branches but still has assets of around £2bn. AnaCap and Blackstone having access to the capital to make this deal happen, however the shape of the deal would potentially be to back an MBO or floatation and to acquire the RBS IT platforms to run it. The question would have to be, given the IT problems that RBSG has had recently, what level of further investment in IT would need to be made to create a true challenger in the SME  and corporate banking markets?

Another private equity firm that could be interested is Corsair Capital where Lord Davies, the former CEO of Standard Chartered, is a partner and vice-chairman. There is no doubt that his experience would bring credibility to a bid, just as Gary Hoffman's presence lent credibility to the NBNK bid for the Lloyds Banking Group Verde branches. This would be very important as getting Bank of England approval for  the executive team of whoever acquires the business is going to be absolutely critical to the success of any bid.

On paper these assets could be attractive to National Australia who with their Clydesdale and Yorkshire Banks do have a significant focus on the SME sector and where there could be synergies. However the UK is not strategic for NAB and there is significant pressure on Cameron Clyne, the CEO of NAB, to dispose of his UK assets even at the cost of a significant writedown. If he were allowed to or wanted to take a longer term view then acquiring the RBSG assets and combining them with Clydesdale and Yorkshire Banks with a view to then selling them could be a way of getting a better return.

Handelsbanken has been making very success in roads into the UK SME banking market with over 150 branches and both high profitability and customer satisfaction. Whilst the addition of  316 branches would significantly increase their scale their preferred approach is grow organically so it is highly unlikely that they will enter the sales process.

Looking at other foreign players who might want to enter the UK banking market the European banks have their hands full in their domestic markets and closing their operations in the troubled European economies such as Italy, Spain, Portugal and Greece, so it is highly unlikely that one of them will enter the fray.

A long shot could be one of the Russian banks such as B&N Bank, Sberbank or VTB. They have the capital and the interest in expanding beyond Russia, but this would have to be a long shot.

Looking at the timescales, the integration challenges and the potential buyers the most likely outcome is a flotation or a management buyout of some form. RBSG needs to go through this process whether it is the final outcome or not as it is important for any potential buyer to believe that there is a competitive bidding process in order to protect the price that RBSG and ultimately the UK tax payer gets for these assets. Whilst Stephen Hester,  the Chief Executive of RBSG, sees the disposal of these branches as a 'distraction' and representing only 2% of RBSG it should be an interesting twelve months.

Update February 3rd 2013: According to Britain's Sunday Telegraph an IPO is now increasingly likely as no one has made a serious offer for the branches. Potential bidders have no been helped by a significant rise in the value of banks in the last few weeks. Whilst it is now most likely that a float will be the outcome, don't assume that this is not an elaborate ploy to force the hand of a potential bidder.

.