Barclays profits surge but the spectre of past misconduct still haunts the bank

Improved results at Barclays and Lloyds were driven by falling misconduct costs. Barclays has chosen to fight a huge fine in the US, however, ensuring that prior misdeeds will still cast a shadow when the sun is shining over its peer 

James Moore
Thursday 23 February 2017 11:28
Barclays boss Jes Staley is set for a dust up with US regulators
Barclays boss Jes Staley is set for a dust up with US regulators

There’s a similar theme running through the results of both Lloyds (more than doubled earnings) and now those of Barclays (nearly tripled earnings).

In both cases the driver has been not so much what their businesses did during the last year but what they didn’t do.

Their pre tax profits surged because they more or less kept their noses clean, and had to set aside less money for the sins of the past. Do business right and you can still make money. Who would have believed it?

When misconduct costs, and other one offs, are stripped out both banks' figures look less stellar. Barclays tunred in a modest 4 per cent increase in earnings to £6.4bn, with its investment bank doing the heavy lifting.

Chief executive Jes Staley, himself a former investment banker, has bet his reputation, and the bank’s future, on dumping its African businesses, which might in time be expected to grow quite quickly, in favour of making Barclays a transatlantic retail and investment bank.

The latter is where the excitement is at, but earnings tend to be volatile, hence the retail bank, to keep shareholders happy when the investment bank stutters.

Which brings us back to the question of conduct. Or rather, misconduct. Despite the fashion for simple banking, retail banks can still get you into serious trouble. The payment protection insurance scandal, provisions for which are only now winding down, provides a rich demonstration of that fact.

But it’s in investment banking where misconduct gets really exciting, and where the penalties can be similarly exciting, at least form the point of view of reporters.

Huge fines imposed for Libor and foreign exchange rigging are just appetisers when set against the current main course, which is the mis-selling of mortgage linked securities that went on during the run up to the financial crisis when banks gleefully punted them around the world with disastrous consequences.

The penalties imposed by the US authorities for that have been huge, dwarfing even the bills banks have incurred through misselling PPI. Royal Bank of Scotland may be the next domino to fall. It is expecting to get thumped, perhaps within the early part of this year, just as others have before it.

Barclays? Well, Barclays has chosen to fight, breaking ranks with its peers, all of which have opted to assume the position.

Critics have argued that American watchdogs have been engaging in something akin to blackmail, seemingly plucking huge figures out of the air. They're able to do that, however, because they know just how bad the information that they have might look before a court.

Faced with the prospect of a messy trial, most banks have opted for the the certainty of taking a beating in favour of potentially taking a bullet.

But not Barclays. Of course, Barclays has been here before, talking tough about fighting a case brought against it over the operation of its dark pool share trading exchange in the US. In the end it settled, paying a fine in the tens of millions of dollars range. Pin money to a bank of its size.

The stakes when it comes to mortgage backed securities are very much higher. We're talking ten, perhaps even 11 figures. That's a lot of zeroes.

It’s a bold gambit by Mr Staley. The urbane CEO has a smoother style than the combative and flashy Bob Diamond, another American investment banker who occupied the CEO’s chair.

But he might be just as big of a risk taker. On the question of the strategy he has mapped out, it might well work. Its certainly coherent, something Barclays has lacked. The reception to these latest results has been mixed, but its fair to say the positives outweigh the negatives and the shares were up. Mr Staley has been winning friends.

On the question of the way Barclays deals with the authorities, if you’ll forgive the hackneyed allusion, the jury is still very much out.

What Mr Staley’s gambit will certainly do, however, is ensure that the bad smell from Barclays past misconduct is still hanging around its Canary Wharf HQ when the roses have bloomed at Lloyds’ corporate centre on Gresham Street in the City.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments