Time for something to change at Barclays

James Penn
July 25, 2019

A few weeks ago John Varley, former CEO of Barclays Bank, was acquitted of fraud in relation to the bank’s fund raising activities in 2008.

Three other senior managers at the bank are still facing trial, but Mr Varley, the one banking CEO to be charged for the events of the financial crisis, will be glad that six years of investigations are over.

Barclays itself was due to stand trial as a corporate defendant for its part in the fund raising, but charges were dropped last year (partly due to fears that it could destabilise the bank).

The announcement prompted thoughts about where Barclays is, and whether it needed those emergency cash calls from the Qatari investors in the first place.

Dealing with the latter first, one wonders now whether Barclays was right to believe it needed private sources of finance to recapitalise itself back in 2008.

Let’s face it, Lloyds took money from the government (with the latter holding over 40% of the shares for a number of years), but the government has since divested its holding – and Lloyds is arguably in a better place than Barclays all these years later.

RBS also took money from the government (which became an 80% shareholder in the bank due to the higher amount of funds it needed), but the parallels are not so clear there.

RBS was forced to divest its investment banking activities. Perhaps, Barclays was fearful it too would face the same treatment and be forced to sell or severely wind down these activities.

But then again, looking at how the Lloyds share price has outperformed, would Barclays have been better off without its IB activities anyway?

Which brings us to the present, and the bank’s fight with activist Edward Bramson, who recently tried to get himself elected to the Barclays Board (against the company’s wishes) in an effort to reduce its investment banking scale, return capital to shareholders, and make it a much less complicated bank – in his words it is a ‘black box with too much leverage’ (in other words, more like Lloyds).

Bramson, who owns 5.5% of Barclays shares, lost the vote, gaining only 12.8% support. The vast bulk of the shareholders are still sticking with Strategy One, which is to back Jes Staley, the ex JPMorgan banker who joined in 2015, who favours retaining the IB division, growing it and making it more profitable.

Staley is making changes in IB, to be fair – its former head, Tim Throsby, left a month ago. Investment banking profits were up 15% in 2018 although group profits were flat. But IB profits fell 29% in Q1 with overall profits down 11%, and IB is set for another dull quarter in Q2.

The succession of CEOs passing through Barclays over the past ten years is testimony to the ‘Yes, we like it, No, we don’t’ attitude towards investment banking. After John Varley, first we had Bob Diamond, the former head of the IB. He was succeeded by Anthony Jenkins, who tacked away from IB before being ousted after disappointing share price performance. Now we have Mr Staley, who has clearly tacked back towards IB.

Jes Staley looks a good pick and is a driven individual, but came under pressure two years ago when it was claimed that he had tried to dismiss a whistleblower at the bank. The bank had to pay a fine of $15m to US authorities, and while Staley escaped censure from the FCA it did leave the bank under a cloud and gave the impression that Barclays can’t get its selections right.

Like a number of European and UK banks, Barclays stock looks cheap, but the shares have been struggling to make any headway in recent years against a background of low growth, low confidence, and zero interest rates. It has undergone sustained restructuring, disposing of its African business and European retail interests, but has continued to run a fully-fledged investment bank. Overall, the performance of the latter has been disappointing, although Barclays does manage to hold its head up with the US banks in some respects.

Its other divisions, UK retail & corporate banking, and CCP (credit cards) are all highly profitable with returns on equity of 30% or so.

The cost to income ratio is still high at 65% – largely due to the IB. Overall costs are £13.6bn and can surely be cut further.

The compliance culture is better now – but in terms of operational performance, much will depend from here on whether any more scandals emerge, given the billions that Barclays has paid in fines for LIBOR and EURIBOR manipulation, dark pools, forex etc.

If it makes consensus EPS of 22p in 2019 that would be an improvement on last year’s 20p.

If it doesn’t then the words of the Stranglers come to mind: ‘Something Better Change.’

The new chairman, Nigel Higgins, who joined the Board in May, could be the catalyst for that.

Disclaimer: The views thoughts and opinions expressed within this article are those of the author, and not those of any company within the Capital International Group (CIG) and as such are neither given nor endorsed by CIG. Information in this article does not constitute investment advice or an offer or an invitation by or on behalf of any company within the Capital International Group of companies to buy or sell any product or security.

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