David Prosser: Are the banks over the worst of bad debts?

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The Independent Online

Outlook As this paper reported yesterday on its front page "Credit card rates [have] hit a 12-year high". If you want to know why, look no further than the results of Barclays Bank. At its Barclaycard division, bad debts rose from £1.1bn to £1.8bn last year. That has to be paid for somehow and higher credit card rates are one answer.

Still, despite the headline numbers on impairments – overall, Barclays reported a 49 per cent hike in its bad debt charge to a shocking £8bn – what is really remarkable is that in many areas the bank thinks the worst is behind it. Barclaycard's second half was better than the first, for example – a trend seen in many parts of the bank's lending activities.

Indeed, Barclays expects overall impairments for 2010 to be modestly below 2009, and it says bad debt has peaked below the highs seen during the recession of the early 1990s. If that forecast proves correct, it will be quite an achievement given the severity of the global downturn through which we have been.

No wonder bank shares headed the FTSE 100 leaderboard last night. The read-across to rivals such as Royal Bank of Scotland and, in particular, Lloyds (which has all those disastrous HBOS commercial loans sitting on its books) is encouraging.

One other thought: Barclays says one reason impairments have not been disastrous after all is that it has managed customers with sensitivity. If that's the case – and similar treatment is meted out by its rivals – this represents the banking sector's best shot at repairing the damage that the Barclays chairman, Marcus Agius, admitted has been done to customer relationships in an unusual foreword to these results. Despite the bonuses, it may just be that the banks are finally beginning to get it.

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