Following the rumour that private equity vehicle Tungsten, formed by Duke Street founder Edmund Turrell and his brother, was preparing a multi-billion bid for Scottish Widows, Antonio Horta-Osorio, CEO of Lloyds Banking Group, stated that the Group was 'absolutely' not selling Scottish Widows. Should Horta-Osorio have adopted the Sean Connery line regarding his return as Bond and said 'never say never' - was he over hasty in his response? Is there no price at which Lloyds should sell Scottish Widows? There are many reasons why the disposal of Scottish Widows should not be dismissed out of hand.
Scottish Widows was bought in 2000 for £7bn by the then Lloyds TSB CEO, Peter Ellwood, ably assisted by his deputy Mike Fairey. At the time many thought that Lloyds TSB had overpaid for Widows, but it was a major plank in Peter Ellwood's strategy to build a major bancassurer. He was not alone at that time having a vision of creating a money supermarket, a one-stop shop for retail financial services from a bank. This vision was shared across the globe with the likes of Citibank acquiring Travellers and ING and AXA all pursuing this vision. However that was with the optimism of the new millennium and now in 2012 following the financial crisis most, if not all of those who adopted this strategy have abandoned it.
Certainly one reason that bancassurance has proved not to be successful is the fundamental difference in culture between a retail bank and a life assurance company. Retail banking is all about transactions, taking a short term view - daily interest charges, leveraging the differences between the deposit and the lending rates, taking and managing risk, whereas life assurance is much more focused on the long term with low volumes of transactions and risk aversity. Bringing the cultures of these two types of business together is like trying to mix oil and water, as has been shown in the market.
Apart from the cultural differences there are other reasons why Lloyds Banking Group could be better off without Scottish Widows. With the impending imposition of Solvency II regulation, insurers are going to be required to hold higher levels of capital than they currently do, which will make doing the business of life assurance more expensive. Layer on top of that, for the likes of Lloyds Banking Group, Basel III and the recommendations of the Independent Commission on Banking (ICB) and the capital requirements are even higher. Long gone is the efficiency of being able to apply the same capital to both the insurance company and the bank. With the cost of acquiring capital being a lot higher than it was at the beginning of the century this further increases the cost of simply doing business.
It is surprising that Antonio Horta-Osorio is defending the bancassurance model, since the bank he came from, Banco Santander, one of the banks that has survived the financial crisis better than most, despite being headquartered in Spain, has always vehemently argued against both the bancassurance model and investment banking and could justifiably say that they have been proved correct. It was most commentators' expectations that given his experience and training that Antonio Horta-Osorio would see the disposal of Scottish Widows as one of his highest priorities.
Another reason to be shot of Scottish Widows is the introduction of the rules coming out of the Retail Distribution Review (RDR). RDR fundamentally challenges the bancassurance model, makes the cost of selling life assurance and investment products much higher. It has seen Barclays and HSBC amongst others, withdraw from selling mass market assurance products and subsequently laying off thousands od staff in the process. Lloyds Banking Group is almost a lone voice on the high street still offering assurance and investment advice to the mass market. This may be a smart decision on the part the Group or could it be that the others are all correct?
Certainly if there is someone prepared to make a good offer for Scottish Widows then it could be in shareholders' (and that means UK tax-payers and the UK Government) best interests that LBG makes the deal as this would be a rapid way of paying down debt and should see a significant increase in share price.
The cost and difficulty of separating Scottish Widows from the rest of Lloyds Banking Group is far lower and far simpler than that of separating the 632 Verde branches that LBG is negotiating with Co-Operative Financial Services. The reason for this is that, despite Lloyds TSB acquiring Scottish Widows in 2000, the level of integration between Scottish Widows and the rest of Lloyds Banking Group is relatively low. It has been managed largely at arms length and therefore carving out would not be that difficult, so this is a deal that could be executed relatively quickly and the benefits achieved faster than other disposals.
Certainly if Scottish Widows was sold that would give Antonio Horta-Osorio and his team the chance to focus on the core issue of restoring what was a great and much-admired bank not just back to where it was before it was forced to buy HBoS, but to be even better and even more a bank for customers of the 21st century.