London: Britain’s retail banking sector is in the midst of a major makeover as lenders post sharply improved earnings, bosses relinquish bonuses and new players prepare to join a recovering market.
Half-way into the earnings season, analysts are lauding a 114% jump in annual profits at Barclays Plc and a narrowing of losses at state-controlled groups Royal Bank of Scotland Group Plc (RBS) and Lloyds Banking Group Plc (LBG).
Following the encouraging results, Britain’s leading retail banks have decided to pay out billions of pounds in bonuses to staff. But fearing a backlash over massive rewards, bosses at Barclays, RBS and LBG have all renounced their own bonuses for 2009.
RBS last week said that its chief executive Stephen Hester had decided to waive his bonus “given public controversy on banking pay and the potential for his bonus to divert attention from and weaken support for the RBS turnaround and recovery”. However, he defended the bank’s decision to allocate a reported £106 billion bonus pool for other staff, arguing that it was necessary to prevent more workers leaving the beleaguered group.
Lloyds, meanwhile, is preparing to dole out a smaller bonus pool of £200 million, according to reports.
Britain’s banking landscape has already undergone huge changes since 2008 owing to major lenders such as RBS and LBG being partly nationalized in the wake of the financial crisis. The government now owns a hefty 84% of RBS and 41.3% of the rival Lloyds.
Meanwhile, Britain’s first new high-street bank for more than a century is expected to launch in April, according to recent media reports.
Following the near-collapse of household names, major tycoons have answered calls from British finance minister Alistair Darling for greater competition across the retail banking sector.
US billionaire Vernon Hill is close to launching Metro Bank—set to be Britain’s first start-up bank with branches for more than 100 years, reports said last week.
Metro Bank is on course to launch in April with two branches in London, once it receives a banking licence from British regulator, the Financial Services Authority.
A spokeswoman for Metro Bank refused to comment on the precise launch date when asked, or on suggestions that it planned to open 200 stores across London and towns directly neighbouring the capital within the next decade.
Metro Bank aims to distinguish itself from the high street’s established lenders by placing customer service at the heart of its business model. The branches are set to have toilets, open late and on weekends, and allow dogs on the premises, as Hill looks to base Metro Bank on Commerce Bank.
The billionaire has promised to “make it easy” for people unhappy at the behaviour of Britain’s major banks to switch to Metro. “In London, opening a bank account is like having your teeth drilled. We’re going to open accounts in 15 minutes,” he recently said.
Elsewhere, Richard Branson’s Virgin Money Personal Financial Service Ltd has itself taken big strides towards becoming a major British retail bank. Virgin Money recently agreed to buy regional private bank Church House and to use the lender as a platform to offer savings and mortgage products to customers under the Virgin Money brand, which is known for its popular credit card and insurance offerings.
The purchase is seen as providing a platform for Virgin Money to buy an even bigger bank, providing true competition to Britain’s biggest retail lenders. In addition, supermarket giant Tesco Plc has launched moves aimed at attracting savers and borrowers to Tesco Bank, which currently provides services similar to those of Virgin Money.
A more established player, Spanish banking giant Banco Santander SA, recently declared that it wants to become Britain’s biggest bank. Chairman Emilio Botin has said that the ambitious group “wants to be the number one bank in the UK” and may buy more assets from struggling rivals.