Investment column: Barclays spells out the damage

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The Independent Online
Normally when a chief executive tells the market that, because of a strategic error, profits are going to be pounds 688m lower then normal, all hell breaks loose. Unless, of course, you are Barclays. Then the City pats you on the back and your shares rise by 41p to 1886p.

In fact Barclays' shares have outperformed the extremely buoyant banking sector of late, despite prolonged shenanigans over the future of its investment banking arm, BZW. After months of rumour and counter-rumour, it offloaded BZW's equity and corporate advisory activities at the end of last year. It admitted the businesses had been sold at less than book value, but failed to spell out the full financial implications.

Barclays finally came clean yesterday and admitted it will take a pounds 340m restructuring charge and pounds 129m goodwill charge in 1997. Oh, and by the way, the equities business made an operating loss of pounds 219m, taking the total hit to pounds 688m.

In the normal course of things, all this would add up to a rough ride for Barclays' shareholders. Yet the stock has been doing well of late, and there are good reasons why.

First, the City is over the moon to see the back of Barclays' global investment banking ambitions, whatever the price. The qualities that make a good retail banker do not make a good investment banker, a fact that Barclays - and for that matter NatWest - have been slow to digest.

Second, the stock has been buoyed up by persistent merger rumours. Martin Taylor, Barclays' chief executive, has indicated his company would be more than willing to jump on the consolidation bandwagon. The marriage partner could be NatWest, Legal & General or a former building society, depending on which rumour you believe. But, whatever form they take, the rumours can only be good for shares.

Finally, Barclays, NatWest and Lloyds have a lower exposure to Asia than HSBC and Standard Chartered. This fact has tended to benefit the former at the expense of the latter, a trend that looks set to continue as long as Asia's economic future remains in the balance.

All the large banks report annual profits in the next few weeks, and estimates from Nikko Europe make Barclays, along with NatWest and Lloyds, look rather pricey. But the premium is justified by industry rationalisation and the magnitude of the banks' exposure to Asia. Worth hanging on to for now.