Outlook: Reinventing the wheel won't of itself solve Abbey's problems

Desperate Corus; OPEC cutbacks; Sky larking

Abbey National's plans "to turn banking on its head" sounds suspiciously like reinvention of the wheel - more marketing hype than genuine innovation. There are some excellent ideas here, and the rebranding will certainly help to modernise what has become a dour and lacklustre image. It should also galvanise staff into believing they are back on the front foot, which is often half the battle in turning around crisis-hit companies.

But whether it will win new customers in such an intensely competitive market, or indeed connect at all with the bottom line, is open to question. Luqman Arnold, the chief executive, wants to win back Abbey's long lost reputation as a ground breaker, yet there is little here to compare with the triumphs of the past - first to pay interest on current accounts, first to allow cash dispenser withdrawals of more than £50, and first to provide telephone mortgages.

Somewhere back in the mid-1990s Abbey lost its way. The core franchise of savings and mortgages was left to run itself as senior management concentrated instead on the apparently easy money of wholesale banking. As we now know, Abbey should have stuck to its knitting. Abbey lost its shirt on its diversifications while the traditional savings and loans business was allowed to go hell in a handcart.

Mr Arnold has virtually completed the heavy lifting part of the turnaround, with the wholesale banking and life assurance businesses now largely swept away. But to revive the core business he needs to find a way of leapfrogging the competition. Personally I rather like the look of the planned high street rebranding, which is reminiscent of the Apple Mac redesign - bright, modern and colourful.

Simpler and fewer accounts are much to be welcomed too. Let's hope that Mr Arnold can keep it that way, for savings accounts are like weeds, prone to grow back with renewed vigour every time they are cut back in a me-too imitation of anything the competition produces.

Mr Arnold believes there is a big market too among independent financial financial advisers for Wrap, a way of providing IFAs with an online check on the progress of their clients' finances. However, none of these things seems to me to amount to the "killer app", the thing that puts Abbey streets ahead of its competitors.

Mr Arnold is unfortunately not the first to realise that banks have a real problem communicating with their customers. All of them are chasing the same holy grail of greater simplicity, better value and more consumer friendliness. For instance, even Barclays, everyone's image of the patronising, fusty old, rip-off banker, has also greatly simplified its range of savings accounts in response to customer demand.

There is no rule that says Abbey is condemned to be progressively out traded simply because it is smaller than five of its high street rivals. As Mr Arnold has correctly surmised, Abbey's smaller size, and the fact that it has so recently been in a state of such profound crisis, ought to give it a natural advantage over bigger competitors in responding more rapidly to changing customer demands. On the other hand, price is becoming as transparent in financial services as every other area of consumer products. If Mr Arnold is hoping to use the makeover as a cloak for charging more, then he's toast.

Desperate Corus

Welcome to England, Monsieur Varin. The privacy laws in his native France would certainly not have allowed it, so the new chief executive of the loss-making steel maker Corus must have been somewhat taken aback to be doorstepped by the Daily Mirror this week demanding to know how he justified the £3,000-a-week rent on his Belgravia pad.

It is not just British tabloid journalism the steel boss will have to get used to. It is also the Anglo-Saxon version of capitalism. In France, Corus would long since have been rescued by a government stuffing large amounts of tax payers' cash into the blast furnaces.

Over here, M Varin is going to have to rely on asset sales and the capital markets to pay for the slimming down of its UK steels business. Having watched the meltdown in the share price over the last three years, investors will surely not be well-disposed to throwing good money after bad by subscribing to a rights issue. In any case, the only version acceptable to the underwriters would be a deeply discounted one, and for that Corus needs the shares to rise.

Yesterday's news from the strip mills was not a good start. Raw material prices have begun to escalate alarmingly, wiping out the benefit of the tentative recovery in prices the world steel market has seen. To make things bleaker, Corus now thinks the European market will get worse before it gets better.

M Varin talks about replacing the "silo mentality" he discovered on arriving at Corus with the "can-do" culture he claims to bring from France. Unfortunately, that won't be enough. What he really needs is a softening in the pound, when in fact it is hardening as quickly as a steel ingot fresh from the furnace. He also needs some respite from the Eastern Europeans, who are eating away what little margin Corus has left.

The gap between the margin Corus makes on sales before all those tiresome deductions like interest, tax, depreciation and amortisation and the margin its international competitors achieve is a yawning one. M Varin's estimate that it will take three years to achieve a turnaround looks at best optimistic. In the meantime he might seriously consider what all the American steel makers have done and file for Chapter 11. It sounds inappropriate for a British company but it may be his best bet.

OPEC cutbacks

Opec has misjudged the world economy by unexpectedly agreeing production cuts. The Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries seems to believe that with stocks building and Iraqi production on its way back, there is a real danger of the oil price collapsing. The cut in production is therefore being presented as pre-emptive. Yet it is surely better that demand continues to recover than that prices are kept robust.

The economic rebound is still fragile, both in the US and the Far East, and it has scarcely begun at all in Europe. Any significant rise in oil prices risks halting it in its tracks. By adding to business costs, rising oil prices are both inflationary and deflationary at the same time. More inflation means higher interest rates, further depressing consumption already damaged by rising petrol prices.

Opec is determined to hold the price around $25 a barrel and seems wholly prepared to cede market share in defending the benchmark. Yet Opec needs the world economy to start recovering as much as any, otherwise the delicate balance between supply, demand and prices gets destroyed in any case.

Sky larking

I may have underestimated City concern over the suggested appointment of James Murdoch as chief executive of BSkyB. Yet though big investors are determined that due process is followed in finding a replacement for Tony Ball, I suspect in the end they will grudgingly accept the anointed son. As it happens, James Murdoch hasn't yet applied for the job, and quite possibly he won't, or not at least until the nominations committee has been turned down by all the alternatives.

Most of the obviously qualified contenders for the post are in the US. Assuming they want to come and work in Rupert Murdoch's shadow, they'll make the furore over Tony Ball's pay look like a vicar's tea party. So I would still put money on James getting the job. As for Murdoch senior being forced to give up the chairmanship as a quid pro quo, that would be just plain silly. The non-executives will need to strengthen their powers of oversight, but the Murdochs have more interest than any in ensuring this company does not come off the rails, and that of itself ought to be enough.

jeremy.warner@independent.co.uk

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