No more Mr Nice Guys? Bullishness is back in banks ... so long as they behave

My Week

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The Independent Online

The enormity of Antony Jenkins’ sacking from Barclays was masked by a game-changing Budget from George Osborne just a few hours later. Chief executives rarely get dispensed with so abruptly, particularly those who have done little wrong. Mr Jenkins’ crime was that he had not done enough right.

I wrote here a year ago that a battle was going on for the soul of Barclays and whoever emerged as its next chairman would decide what the bank stood for. Under Mr Jenkins the bank was steadied, but suffered exactly the same crisis of confidence as Deutsche Bank, the only other European lender that has ambitions to remain an investment banking force alongside its retail activities.

The new chairman John McFarlane, who dispensed with the services of Andrew Moss at Aviva in exactly the same fashion, is confident that serial offender Barclays can keep its nose clean while boosting profits. If shareholders were unclear about his views, they wouldn’t have been as he strode across the trading floor on Wednesday while the blood was still being mopped up in the boardroom.

What is interesting is that a coalition government would have preferred Barclays to shrink its ambition like Royal Bank of Scotland, which Mr McFarlane was at one time lined up to chair. But the game has changed.

At the Mansion House dinner last month, Mr Osborne talked about “a new settlement with financial services”, which sounded like his version of former Barclays chief Bob Diamond insisting that the time for “remorse” was over – albeit Diamond Bob insisted it four years too early. So making whacking profits is back in fashion for banks, as long as they behave. Is this the end of banker bashing – and proof that nice guys never win in the City?

Rolls-Royce needs precision in how it communicates

 There is a corner of Singapore that is forever England. Visitors to the old RAF base at Seletar in the north of the island may find themselves being driven down Lambeth Walk, Maida Vale or Oxford Street. The road names are a hangover from the war years, but the personnel have moved on. Instead of fighter pilots, there are engineers, but they are still the best of British.

Here, in a giant hangar, is the eastern outpost of Rolls-Royce, the aero-engine maker. I visited last year. It is only when you get into one of these cathedrals of manufacturing that you understand how impressive the process of making something so big and complicated really is. The scale, the precision – it wasn’t just the air-conditioning that took my breath away.

I’m a big believer in British companies that wave the flag when they go abroad, but they must wave it at home too. Rolls suffered another profit warning this week because of the poor performance of its civil aerospace division. The shares are off 40 per cent since the start of 2014. The company would be a takeover target if it wasn’t for the golden share held by the Government.

John Rishton, Rolls’s last boss, failed to woo shareholders or connect with the media. For a great British blue-chip, the company, a crucial employer and exporter, adopted the facelessness of an American corporation. Of course good relations cannot paper over poor performance, but they count for a lot.

Rolls proclaims that its business is focused on the 4Cs of customer, concentration, cost and cash. I do hope Warren East, Mr Rishton’s successor, can throw “communication” into the mix too.

Who will be the host of the new Great Exhibition?

 One thing that set Thomas Heatherwick on the road to design superstardom was the Seed Cathedral he dreamt up for the Shanghai Expo in 2010.  It meant that when the Olympics came to London two years later, he was the obvious choice to dream up the stadium cauldron.

Now plans are afoot to see if an Expo can weave the same spell over London that the Olympics did. On Monday I chaired a panel discussion at Canary Wharf for the Centre for London to assess whether the capital should bid to host Expo 2025. As with the Olympics, it is a case of balancing the cost and hassle of construction disruption with the tourist benefit and chance to regenerate a tired corner of the city. What is distinct from the Olympics is the need to explain what an Expo actually is. There is one going on in Milan at the moment – I hadn’t heard about it either.

The Great Exhibition of 1851 is always harked back to as the best example of an Expo gathering cutting-edge ideas from all over the world so crowds could marvel at what the future held. Younger readers may use the year-long showcase in the Millennium Dome as a better proxy.

The UK is already good at hosting events, ranked fifth in the world by the number held. As an example, thousands of cardiologists will flood into the ExCeL centre in east London next month for one of the biggest industry-specific gatherings of the year. They might not be world-class athletes who generate column inches, but they do generate income for the broader economy.

London Mayor Boris Johnson and his team have just a few months to persuade the Treasury to back a bid. They have a long way to go. Birmingham is also interested in Expo 2025; I suspect it may prove a more popular choice in Westminster.

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