View from City Road: RBS builds on local strengths

FOR Royal Bank of Scotland, England is where the bad debts come from. In mainstream banking, provisions were pounds 185m in England and only pounds 45m in Scotland, out of proportion to lending.

So it is not surprising that the bank has dropped piecemeal expansion across England, and is to concentrate on building outwards from the North-west, where the old William Deacon's network still has a market share of nearly a fifth. Long-established customers have been the least risky ones in this recession.

Royal's retrenchment strategy, including the still-awaited sale of most of the merchant bank Charterhouse to a Franco-German consortium, is hardly an exciting one. But this new emphasis on regional strengths is excellent for customers, and possibly good for shareholders, if it is properly exploited. The advantages of economies of scale in banking are exaggerated.

The downside is that when the recovery is under way, Royal may be back to the problem it started with: slow economic growth in its core areas.

In the short term, the good news for shareholders is that cost-cutting is happening at last, later than at most banks, but bringing plenty of scope for higher earnings. The dividend has been maintained, but is uncovered, while bad debts will stay high for a year, so it will be 1994 before there is much prospect of dividend growth.

Until recently, bid prospects have been one of the few reasons to hold Royal shares, but speculation is now better directed at TSB and Standard Chartered. At 189p, up 8.5p, Royal may at last be worth holding for itself.

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