View from City Road: Still further to fall for Barclays

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The Independent Online
WITH SO many past and present Barclays executives pointing the finger of blame at each other, it is hard to tell who was responsible for the bank's current plight.

Quite apart from bad lending, it is clear that one of the worst mistakes was the failure of the bank's top executives, who included Andrew Buxton as managing director and then chief executive, to confront their problems early enough.

The excuse they give now is that the late surge in property loans was uncontrollable because it arose from commitments made before the recession began. But it is just as obvious that management did not realise until later than their counterparts in most other clearers how serious was the approaching tidal wave of bad debts. Only last year was it seen to be taking tough action to cut costs, raise revenue and get management systems into the shape required of a multinational bank. This is why Barclays' results are by far the worst of the clearing banks.

Mr Buxton is now struggling to find a formula under which a chief executive can be installed underneath him without overshadowing - and prompting the resignations of - the three divisional chief executives and the deputy chairman, Sir Peter Middleton. If he cannot find an amicable solution, Barclays' management record could go from bad to worse.

But for shareholders, who are paying the penalty for these mistakes, the real question is whether Barclays has yet touched bottom. Has Mr Buxton used the new chairman's prerogative of cleaning out the rubbish to establish a sound basis for growth?

Sadly, he may not have done. Non-performing and 'potential problem' loans amount to pounds 9.7bn compared with pounds 7.3bn a year ago. The potential problem loans - worth pounds 2.3bn - are those where there is serious doubt that borrowers will continue paying. There are also nearly pounds 700m worth of overdue loans against which no provisions have been made.

Despite the improvement in underlying bank performance, Barclays' fortunes are in the hands of its battered customers this year, and there is very little the bank can do about it. First-half bad debts will remain very high.

Capital is relatively strong, after adroit balance-sheet management, although the most important tier-one capital has suffered from the dollar's rise. But Barclays' share price has further to fall before it can be classed with the bank recovery stocks.