The Lead Taker - Banking Patient update

Banking Patient update

I was ruminating with a colleague recently over the best headlines of the financial crisis; we had "wheels falling off structured investment vehicles" from 2007 and "staring into the abyss" from September 2008.

So I thought it was about time to take an overview of the UK banking sector - and see how the patient is doing - and what headline is appropriate for today.

Where better to turn for vital signs than the Confederation of British Industry and PricewaterhouseCoopers. Surely such respected organisations are in the know, especially when they put their heads together for their quarterly financial services survey.

Well, from the latest research it would appear that banks saw business volumes fall over the past three months, with the decline entirely due to lower business with financial institutions, while business with companies actually increased. 
Numbers employed fell for the second consecutive quarter and banks managed to widen their spreads and keep total and average costs stable, thereby increasing profitability despite a rise in non-performing loans. 
Unsurprisingly, banks are also bracing themselves for increased regulation costs in the year ahead.
Building Societies, on the other hand, saw business volumes grow for the third quarter running and whilst spreads narrowed, falling average costs per transaction left profits little changed.
Finance houses also reported higher volumes on the back of increased business with companies rather than that with individuals, which fell. 
Nonetheless, business was regarded as significantly below normal and firms plan to reduce their IT investment spends in the year ahead.
According to PwC's UK banking leader, Kevin Burrowes: “The outlook for banking is dominated by concern about weak demand, seen as the greatest threat to growth and the leading barrier to investment, and the growing costs of regulation."
He also observes that commercial business is growing again, reflecting banks’ increasing efforts to meet social and economic expectations by increasing their lending to businesses. 
As a result, growth in retail banking has come to a halt as the banks focus more on commercial than consumer lending.
As far as building societies are concerned, if Funding for Lending doesn't relieve some of the pressure on their margins, the outlook is rather bleak.
The CBI/PwC overview has been followed this week by the rather surprising news that some investment banks are bringing back employees from the dead - sorry, got that wrong - from retirement.
Apparently, all the scandals of the last few years have impacted on investment banks' credibility, so there is a new wave of requirement for "very" senior client facing staff - meaning senior relationship managers who have the gravitas to reassure corporate clients regarding the advice they have received, and the products they have been sold. Hopefully their level of gravitas will be able to withstand the truth when it appears ugly!
Apart from this interesting development, financial recruitment specialist Astbury Marsden also reports that new City job vacancies plummeted 15% to a mere 2,490 in September, following the widening of the LIBOR scandal and the continued scaling down of investment banking activities.
The outlook to the year-end looks none too good either, with expectations that recruitment will be put on hold as HR department and senior managers grapple with recruitment strategies apt for 2013.
Rather difficult to sum up in one headline, but what I can add is that one lender was recently honest enough to tell me that the leisure and care sectors are out in the wilderness regarding bank finance. 
So, where to go with a headline from beyond the abyss? I am calling to mind one from the 1980s when Midland bought Crocker National, a mid-sized Californian bank, with calamitous results as a result of a loose understanding of the term "due diligence". 
The FT put the whole thing to bed with "Midland Crocker s***" but I would never take such a harsh approach to the UK's battered banking sector and would rather defend it against an Ed Miliband future where banks are broken up and ring-fencing is imposed.
But don't think I am soft hearted - the UK economy is heavily reliant on earnings from the City and other invisible exports, and I am not prone to making dangerous situations such as the UK's teetering economy even worse.
No, today's headline for the UK banking sector has taken a while to come, but at least I will be able to sleep at night with:
UK banking sector: "Vital signs exist amid regulatory induced coma".

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