Outlook: Bob Diamond's name may be mud with the public, but it shines in the City

 

Outlook With the exception of an interview with the New York Times wunderkind Andrew Sorkin and the odd trip out to the basketball at the Barclays Center (he sits on the board) Bob Diamond has mostly kept his head down in the Big Apple for the past year and a half.

Not any more. Despite its beastly regulators and carnivorous press he's back on this side of the Atlantic having brought his new venture to London. And the City apparently couldn't be happier about it.

Mr Diamond's cash shell Atlas Mara filed a prospectus for an initial public offering yesterday and was greeted by a deluge of money. His acrimonious departure from "little England" was clearly more of a lovers' tiff than a divorce.

Putting money into such vehicles amounts to little more than giving their bosses a blank cheque. Just ask those who backed Bumi, which sprang from Nat Rothschild's Vallar, and was an unmitigated disaster for investors.

But it seems that the Diamond name is starry enough to have overcome any lingering doubts in investors' minds. It may be mud with the public, but the moneymen think it still sparkles. It doesn't hurt that Atlas Mara's proposition appears on the surface to be an enticing one.

Its stated intention is to use the funds raised to buy a financial services institution, probably a bank, in Africa. The continent has a population of a billion but only a quarter of them have bank accounts, and just one in 20 has a credit card. Factor in booming economies and the belated emergence of middle classes in some of the better-governed countries and the potential is clear.

Barclays was also well acquainted with the region during Mr Diamond's time there, and he has partnered with the former Rwandan refugee and IT entrepreneur Ashish Thakkar, who got his start flogging computers to schoolmates in Uganda, with the aim of mining a potentially lucrative seam.

Starry eyed investors believe the pair can mine diamonds in the rough and appear more than willing to accept that the pair will get a substantial bung through preference shares if Atlas Mara's shares hit a target price; the very fact that there is a target is an improvement on past such ventures.

Mr Diamond clearly has a sharp eye for a deal. That's what his corps of backers are banking on. They will also have to rely on his having had successful laser surgery on the blind eye that caused him to miss so many pitfalls at Barclays.

Of course, they might very well feel that Africa is tailor-made for a free-wheeling, entrepreneurial type like Mr Diamond. And the continent does offer a huge opportunity for sparkling returns. It could be the world's next big investment story.

But the opportunity for controversy is equally outsized. And controversy has had a habit of following Mr Diamond around like a moth to a flame. For Atlas Mara to succeed Mr Diamond needs to prove that he has learned enough from his time at Barclays to be alive to the dangers that Africa presents, as well as the opportunities.

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