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Business Comment

OUTLOOK: RBS makes the worst excesses of a Turner Prize look pretty


On the contents page of Royal Bank of Scotland’s typically voluminous final results it says “highlights”.

That's quite the misnomer. At the head of those "highlights" is the reporting of a pre-tax loss for 2013 of £8.2bn - even worse than had been forecast after RBS ‘fessed up  and admitted things would be awful with a profit warning. 

Let's move on to operating profits, which banks tend to like to do because it strips out pesky things like provisions against the costs of their seemingly interminable problems with the regulators. Unfortunately they don't offer any comfort to RBS here, falling  by 15 per cent. 

How about the the operating units, then. Could one of them cheer everyone up? Erm, no. Retail & Commercial saw a 4 per cent fall in earnings. Markets, a 58 per cent drop. Lower costs meant losses from "non core" operations that are being run off fell by just over a quarter. But don't start cheering. They still delivered £2bn of losses. 

Oh and by the way, despite this, and a threadbare capital base, the bank is still paying out in excess of half a billion in bonuses. That wasn't mentioned in the "highlights". Can't think why. 

Truly, this is a picture that makes the worst excesses of the Turner Prize look pretty. 

If you wanted to find a positive somewhere, it is this. Chief executive Ross McEwan has chucked everything out into these results, including the kitchen sink used by his predecessor Stephen Hester's flunkies to wash out his coffee cups.

New bosses get a one time only chance to do this with their first set of results, when the blame for nasties can be pinned on others. They are usually well advised to use it. 

So, in theory things ought to get better from here on out then. Surely?

Here's the problem. They might not. McEwan wants to focus the bank on the UK, and on retail. The basic business of attracting deposits and lending them out at a profit to consumers and small businesses. 

Good banking, in other words, if that isn't a misnomer these days. The sort of business that a former retail banker like McEwan is most comfortable with, by contrast to Hester who is an investment banker by trade. 

The problem is his plan for turning RBS into a "good, safe, bank" - the favoured buzz phrase - is inevitably going to involve yet more cost cuts and probably more job cuts.

To get this business growing again it really need to reconnect with its customers and show them it can deliver and efficient and effective service. 

The problem is, how do you expect a battered and bruised staff still fearing for their jobs to do that? Meanwhile those customers will look at those bonuses aghast. Most of them will be taxpayers and so it's their money that is being paid out. 

The only consolation for RBS is that the other banks are seen as almost as bad. Unfortunately that may not be enough to persuade a restive customer base to stay put. And he really needs them to stay put right now.