Slow start for RBS and Virgin

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The Independent Online
VIRGIN ONE - the banking joint venture between Richard Branson and the Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS) - has signed up less than 1,000 account holders.

But RBS said it had had "thousands" of expressions of interest and was processing lots of applications. The bank estimated it had a loan book worth pounds 250m "in the pipeline".

Industry observers were surprised at the relatively low number of customers that have signed up with Virgin One, which attracted substantial press coverage on launch last autumn.

The Virgin joint venture lost pounds 5m in the first half of 1998, and RBS's Tesco joint venture lost pounds 23m. The bank said it hoped its supermarket banking venture, which has around 600,000 customers, would break even in the year 2000.

The bank also has said it is in no rush to resolve the deadlock over Birmingham Midshires, the building society that accepted a takeover offer from RBS but is seeking to break the agreement and go for a higher offer from Halifax..

In his first public comment on the long-running saga, George Mathewson, RBS chief executive, said: "We hear what Midshires are saying, and we listen, but we don't know what's going to happen. We are not under any great pressure. It is not something that occupies much of my time."

RBS has so far refused to release Midshires from an exclusivity agreement signed when RBS made a pounds 630m bid for the building society last summer. Under the terms of the agreement, Midshires is prohibited from talking to third parties. This includes Halifax, which made a pounds 780m counter-offer for Midshires in March.

RBS's shares rose strongly after publication of better-than-expected first-half figures. Profits for the six months to March rose 21 per cent to pounds 411m before exceptionals and tax. The profit jump came despite significant provisions for Asia and losses on RBS's new joint ventures with Tesco and Virgin.

RBS made a pounds 53m first-half provision to help cover its exposure in the troubled South-east Asian region. About pounds 19m of the pounds 53m relates to specific provisions, and RBS's total provisions for the region are now pounds 60m.

The bank said its exposure to Korea, Indonesia and Thailand totalled pounds 605m, or around 0.8 per cent of the group's assets. It maintained that further provisions should not be necessary as long the Asian situation stabilised.

Mr Mathewson said he was, in principle, interested in making acquisitions as long as the terms were right. "If the right thing comes up we will do it."

RBS shares closed at 988p, up 54.5p.

Investment column, page 24