RBS on the up, kind of...

RBS is back to operating profit, but its taxpayer-owners shouldn't break out the champers just yet.

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

First for the good news. The largely state-owned bank posted an operating profit of £713m for the first three months of the year. That's its first operating profit since Q1 of 2009. On first read the results are a beauty - marking a vast improvement on the £1.4bn loss it announced for the end of last year.

This latest boost was driven by a fall in impairments for bad loans, from £2.9bn to £2.7bn, and a 35% rise in income in its investment banking division.

And so it's all good news for the taxpayers then, given that they own 84% of the bank? Well not quite. Restructuring and other non-operating costs - such as paying £500m to the Government's Asset Protection Scheme - drove RBS to a pre-tax loss of £21m, compared with a profit of £134m in the previous quarter. Meanwhile operating profits in its troubled investment banking wing more than halved - from £3.5bn a year ago to £1.5bn.

Which is all in keeping with a company still at the early stages of a turnaround. And when you've started out from a position of such an unholy mess as RBS did, it's never going to be an overnight thing.

Especially when the world keeps chucking more things out to derail it. Not least the markets. Shares in the bank plunged 5% to 45.27p in early trading, as everyone got in a tizz about contagion from Greece, and began wondering just what effect a hung Parliament is going to have on a country that was struggling to work out its sums even with there was only one party doing the maths. This is bad news for the taxpayer ­- they only break even on the RBS investment when the share price passes 50p.

Boss Stephen Hester, the man brought in by RBS to sort out the mess, had the clarity of vision to announce that ‘... as we see from Greece, getting the debt under control is very important'. You're telling us. And this is exactly what the FSA is currently saying as it wags its watchdog's paw at one of his predecessors, Johnny Cameron. The former head of RBS' investment banking division is facing a life ban from the financial services industry for his role in the disastrous ABN Amro acquisition. 

Hester will be happy that today's figures suggest a break with the past. But he's still playing the cautious game - remaining reluctant to forecast profits for the bank for 2010. He insists the first full-year of profit would be next year. You can't blame him for hedging: we can't imagine a Hung Parliament and the fiscal plight of the Ouzo massive will be the only source of uncertainty over the next 18 months.


In today's bulletin:

Who wins in a hung parliament? It depends
Stormy weather ahead as insolvencies rise, house prices fall
RBS on the up, kind of...
Women CFOs more reliable?
Negotiation is non-negotiable for SMEs





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