View from City Road: Stopping the boom going to bust

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The Independent Online
Ending the boom-to-bust cycle has suddenly become all the rage. Not only chancellors and central bank governors aspire to it these days; businessmen and commercial bankers dance to the same tune.

Ever since he started the job in March, it has been one of the primary aims of Martin Taylor, chief executive of Barclays Bank. He was preaching the message again yesterday as the bank announced an astonishing threefold increase in first-half, pre-tax profits to more than pounds 1bn. A year ago it was still fashionable to characterise bankers as incompetent. How times change. Today they have to defend themselves against allegations of profiteering.

The great bulk of the increase at Barclays is accounted for by a collapse in bad debt provisions as the economy slowly and painfully eases its way out of recession. These provisions peaked at an unheard-of level of nearly 3 per cent of lending in 1992, were trimmed last year, and are now being slashed into the upturn.

The trick Mr Taylor has to perform is to stop them creeping up again when the next recession begins to bite. Mr Taylor is as determined to eradicate the stop/go practices of his organisation as Kenneth Clarke is in the wider economy.

But how? There was a little more elaboration yesterday on plans Mr Taylor first outlined when he took the helm in March. Costs plainly have to come down dramatically; despite the bounce in profits, there is going to be no let-up on that front. Furthermore, the bank is now prepared to shrink its loan book and lose business to its rivals, rather than take on business that might lead to a repeat of the 1980s bad debts disaster.

The prospect of Barclays becoming the Lloyds Bank of the 1990s - a cost- cutting dividend machine - is causing much excitement in the stock market. Thus far at least, the omens look good. Mr Taylor may be a former textiles man, but he seems to be using a banker, Sir Brian Pitman, as his model. It was Sir Brian who made Lloyds the star of the recession by cutting costs more than anyone else.

If this means shrinking the business, so be it. The process has already begun. In the half-year, costs came down 4 per cent. There was some progress in shrinking the loan book too - all in stark contrast to Barclays' attitude in the late 1980s, when the bank publicly declared its mission to be the biggest.

The strategy also stands in some contrast to that of NatWest, the UK's other main corporate lender. Costs were up at NatWest during the half- year, and the bank declared it would be prepared to spend money defending market share.

To help the transformation, a new system of credit assessment, which Mr Taylor calls 'expected loss' provisioning, is being put in place.

This will have two effects. It will increase the extent to which the bank provisions against future bad loans by grading each business on the basis of risk. This in turn should provide bank managers with a much clearer lending focus. And it should allow them to impose differential charging for loans, again on the basis of a detailed risk assessment of the business.

In theory at least, the peaks and troughs of the banking cycle should become smoothed out with provisioning evenly spread across the years. The ultimate aim is to abolish entirely the boom-to-bust nature of banking. Mr Taylor said yesterday he would be happy to lose income to achieve this.

Whether he succeeds is another thing. History would teach you to treat such ambitions as sceptically as the markets have reacted to Mr Clarke's statement of economic policy in the Mansion House speach. Nevertheless, the evidence so far of a real change at Barclays looks reasonably promising. As yet there is little sign of Mr Taylor 'going native', despite fears that his reforming instincts would be submerged by the dead weight of Barclays' bureaucracy. It will be fascinating to see whether Pitman junior can abolish history.