NatWest dismisses speculation of a merger with Barclays

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Barclays and NatWest worked hard yesterday to counter rampant speculation that Barclays is seeking a merger between the two banks. Rumours that NatWest's chairman, Lord Alexander, and two other non-executive directors are likely to step down,

were also denied, reports John Willcock

Responding to suggestions that Barclays is putting pressure on NatWest to discuss a merger of the two high street banks, a Barclays spokeswoman said yesterday: "Barclays has noted recent press speculation about the linking of its name with NatWest. In common with all companies, Barclays continually monitors developments within its own industry."

The spokeswoman refused to comment on press reports that Barclays has retained Terry Eccles of JP Morgan, the corporate financier that advised Lloyds Bank on its takeover of TSB. Nor would she comment on reports that LEK, the management consultancy, has been retained to advise on the national interest arguments relating to a merger. "We have used both advisers in the past," she said.

Meanwhile a NatWest spokesman rebutted reports that two non-executives, Sir Desmond Pitcher, chairman of United Utilities, and Sir John Banham, former head of the Confederation of British Industry, are to leave as a result of a recruitment drive.

The spokesman said: "Since Lord Maclaurin (formerly of Tesco) and John Melbourn (ex-NatWest) left, we have been actively searching for replacement non-execs. We have got Pen Kent, which leaves us one short."

He refused to comment on the idea that institutional shareholders want Lord Alexander to step down, following the U-turn on NatWest's former strategy of expanding its investment banking arm, NatWest Markets (NWM).

The spokesman also refused to be drawn on the heated competition to buy NWM's equities arm, which is being pursued by Deutsche Morgan Grenfell and Bankers Trust. "We did turn down a derisory approach from DMG. If someone comes along with an offer, it is our responsibility to consider it," he said.

As for a merger with Barclays, he said: "We've had no talks with Barclays or offers from Barclays. We're getting on with running our business."

"We're not sitting in some defensive bunker," he concluded.

Insiders at Barclays further point out that observers may be getting over-excited by the prospect of a big strategic initiative following last week's disposal of BZW's equities and investment banking operations to Credit Suisse First Boston.

In fact Barclays is keeping more parts of BZW in revenue terms than it is selling. If there are any changes in direction, they will be spurred by the need to prepare for European Monetary Union, insiders say.

Most observers in the City are bemused by the continuing rumours of merger intentions from Barclays, since such a link would run into massive competition objections from the authorities. The rumours are fuelled by the prospect of dazzling cost savings.