RBS sends not-so-subtle warning on hard Brexit
The bank fears job losses and soaring inflation
RBS is still finding its state embrace uncomfortable. In the decade since the U.K. lender wound up with a majority government stake it has been dragged over the coals for its bonuses, its lending policies and allegedly driving healthy businesses to the wall. Friday’s £100 million provision to cover the risk of a messy U.K. exit from the EU is the latest sign of its awkward State/private sector hybrid.
RBS, still over 60% government-owned, fears lost jobs, soaring inflation and hobbled consumer spending if Britain crashes out of the European Union without a deal. Hence the decision to top up an existing near £4 billion of provisions on its £320 billion loan book. The combination of this, plus a Brexit-related need to hold a larger stock of liquid assets, meant the lenders £448 million pound of third-quarter net profit missed expectations. The bank’s share price fell nearly 5%.
Preparing for Brexit
RBS is hardly alone in making preparations for a no-deal Brexit.
In the two years following Britain’s vote to leave, Barclays has cut its leveraged loan book by 25% and eased off its credit card business. More recently, HSBC included a £190 million provision to address economic uncertainty. Both are probably Brexit-related. Still, RBS’s warning is more explicit. Given its close ties to the U.K. Treasury, which signs off its CEO appointments, any Brexit warning is likely to be interpreted as a political tactic. Brexit-backers will point to the fact that only 0.16% of RBS loans are in default, a number which was lower than expected, as a sign that the bank is being used as a scare-mongering conduit.
Remainers will think the opposite. Under IFRS accounting rules, any changes to internal economic forecasts have to be reflected in the lender’s provisions. If the more blood-curdling predictions about what a no-deal outcome would entail come true, Europhiles will attack RBS for being too circumspect. That’s pretty annoying but after a decade the bank is used to being caught in the middle.
(The author, Aimee Donnellan, is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.)
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