Royal Bank considers hostile bid for Barclays

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THE ROYAL Bank of Scotland is debating internally whether to mount a pounds 36bn hostile takeover bid for Barclays Bank, one of Britain's most prestigious high street institutions, after being repeatedly rebuffed in its attempts to secure a friendly merger.

Such a bid, which could take the form of a four-for-one all share offer, would be one of the most audacious financial operations the City of London has ever seen. Barclays is one of the pillars of the British banking establishment and on current stock market valuations three-times the Royal Bank's size. The risk of such a move is considerable given that hostile bids in the banking sector are normally frowned upon by City regulators and rarely succeed.

However, the Scottish bank's chief executive, Sir George Mathewson, and deputy, Fred Goodwin, are convinced that recent developments on the Continent have turned conventional stock market wisdom on its head, with Italy's national telephones company Telecom Italia falling prey to Olivetti, a company that was virtually bankrupt five years ago, and France's Banque Nationale de Paris within a whisker of pulling off a spectacular hostile takeover of two rival banks simultaneously.

Mr Goodwin has also been encouraged by the favourable stock market reaction to the takeover by Vodaphone, the cellular phones operator, of Airtouch of America, suggesting that concern about the impact of recent accounting changes requiring large goodwill write-offs in takeover bids may have been overdone. There are also signs of support in parts of the City for the bid. City deal-makers estimate that a takeover of Barclays by the Royal Bank could yield up to pounds 800m in savings, four-times the pounds 200m Barclays said last month it will cut on its own.

Discussions within the Royal Bank are said to be at a very early stage. No formal proposal has yet been made to the board. However, Sir George and Mr Goodwin are clearly frustrated at the continued refusal of the Barclays chairman, Sir Peter Middleton, to even meet them despite the bank having been without a chief executive for nine months.

There was incredulity in the City yesterday after Mike 0'Neill, the American banker who was its first choice to replace Martin Taylor, said he would still be interested in the job.

Mr O'Neill quit on his first day on the job in April after being diagnosed with a serious heart condition. But the condition appears to be less serious than first thought and Mr O'Neill said yesterday that it was "not impossible" that he could come back. Investors are also impatient for a banking deal, particularly after the collapse earlier this week of a planned pounds 12bn merger between Alliance & Leicester and Bank of Ireland.

One City banker said: "There would inevitably be issues raised of confidence in the banking sector. It is pretty ballsy. But why not?" Outlook, page 21