Outlook: Can Standard Chartered's triumvirate survive long into the New Year?

 

Outlook How long will the current boardroom structure remain at Standard Chartered?

The rumourmill has been churning lately about whether the triumvirate of chief executive Peter Sands, finance director Richard Meddings and chairman Sir John Peace will remain intact for much longer. Mutterings about differences of views over strategy did the rounds.

This seemed strange given how closely they have worked through the financial crisis. Mr Sands and Mr Meddings even together drafted the £37bn bailout plan for the banks in 2008 which was largely followed by Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling.

Then came yesterday's little bombshell – a warning that profits next year will fall for the first time in a decade. This was just three weeks after an investor day in which, analysts say, little inkling was given of such a nasty change in fortunes. Mr Sands and his management team were left looking, frankly, rather inept. The shares fell more than 6 per cent.

The pressure the bank has been coming under in the past year or so had already left some investors increasingly concerned about the bank losing its mojo. As one said yesterday, much of an executive team's job is about sending out the right body language to investors. But in Standard Chartered's case, this year that message has been bouncing around from cautious to positive, to cautious again on a quarterly basis. This does not go down well.

I can't help feeling that, while Mr Meddings is a fine communicator, well liked in the City, at times of crisis – and, since last year's sanctions busting in Iran scandal, there has been no shortage of those – the chief executive should be more present. Where was Mr Sands yesterday? On the David Cameron China trip. And it's not the first time by any means.

At the heart of yesterday's warning is the problem that fewer companies want to buy the kind of bread and butter financial hedging products that make for big bucks at Standard Chartered. New rules forcing banks to have bigger capital buffers have meant making such products as insurance against currency movements far more expensive. Also, with markets so volatile amid speculation about QE tapering from the Federal Reserve, companies are increasingly unsure about which side of the potential to swing to hedge against. Faced with that double gamble, they decide not to bother, and take the risk on the chin.

These conditions are not going to change for a long time. But they've also been in play since the spring. Why, then, investors wonder, hasn't Standard Chartered been more realistic throughout the year? Why does its guidance lurch so disorientatingly? As one analyst asked yesterday: "Have management really got a handle on their business?"

One hears from colleagues that Mr Sands is not a man burdened with low self-esteem, to the extent that, one hears, he can be hard to work with. Some suggest Mr Sands would not be averse to one day replacing Sir John as chairman, but this seems unlikely. A more realistic candidate seems to be last week's boardroom appointee, the respected banker (they do exist) Naguib Kheraj.

Crystal ball gazing, of course, but one wonders, if such volatile trading continues long into the New Year, how long the Sands/Meddings/Peace trio will stick together.

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