A pundit briefs a bystander on Standard Chartered’s board shake-up:
Pundit: Exciting news! Bill Winters has been appointed chief executive.
Bystander: Great! He’s hilarious — and I love his dog Schnorbitz.
P: Not Bernie Winters, the dead comedian. Bill Winters, the well-networked former co-head of investment banking at JPMorgan.
B: Isn’t StanChart in a spot of bother?
P: And some. The bank is making whacking losses on Asian loans. New York regulator “Bouffant” Ben Lawsky keeps hitting it with fines.
B: Will Bill sort out the mess?
P: His appointment will at least sugar the pill of an impending rights issue.
B: What’s he like?
P: Charismatic. Bill Clinton without the weird stuff involving cigars.
B: Will he sing Lean on Me to shareholders?
P: You’re confusing him with Bill Withers now. But that will be a theme.
B: So the outgoing chief executive and the chairman worked harmoniously to ensure a smooth succession?
P: According to City gossip, Sir John Peace and Peter Sands scrapped like dockers to push each other out.
B: Sir John won, then?
P: He lost less conclusively. He’ll follow Sands out of the door.
B: Doubtless, he’s philosophical.
P: Don’t be so sure. Sir John was tetchy on a press call. He described natural questions about the future of deputy chief executive Mike Rees as “daft”.
B: Did Sands say “now you can see what I’ve had to put up with”?
P: He didn’t, though some StanChart executives have been less restrained.
B: Didn’t ex-finance director Richard Meddings supposedly once utter the phrase “effing Americans”? That can’t have gone down well with Mr Lawsky.
P: Mr Winters could only say that half-seriously. He’s part American.
B: So there’s a pattern? A UK company gets in trouble in the US and appoints an American boss as camouflage?
P: Well, it’s worked brilliantly for BP, hasn’t it?
Beating the retreat
Royal Bank of Scotland relinquishing its ambition to be a full-service investment bank is rather like Sheffield Wednesday conceding it will never lead the Premiership. RBS had never been a contender. The credit crunch sounded the death knell for Fred Goodwin’s hubristic plan for RBS’s investment bank to take on the likes of Goldman Sachs and Deutsche Bank and win.
Current chief executive Ross McEwan is simply responding to the same imperatives that resulted in Barclays — a stronger candidate — pulling back from the contest last year. Activities such as bond and interest rate trading now absorb too much capital to make them worthwhile in a low volatility world. RBS’s investment bank made an £892m operating loss in 2014 despite carrying a whacking £107bn of risk-weighted assets.
Stephen Hester began cutting back the investment bank in 2009. Rory Cullinan, the bank’s run-off ninja, will finish the job. His mission is to slash assets to £35bn-£40bn and the headcount of deal doers from 3,500. This should please the government, which is RBS’s largest shareholder. Chancellor George Osborne demanded the investment bank should shrink in 2011 and was rewarded with the sale of units including the historic Hoare Govett equities business.
Mr Cullinan will close 25 foreign outposts that few of us knew the investment bank even had, while completing the whittling down of the UK operation to an appendage of commercial banking.
It is sad that the UK has failed in its efforts to produce a top-tier investment bank. But there is no shame for RBS in admitting it is beaten when everyone else knew it years ago.
Gradations of gratitude
Companies give carefully calibrated thanks when directors leave. This week, we decode quotes from RSA’s valediction to finance director Richard Houghton, who is stepping down as the insurer returns to the black:
“I would like to thank Richard for his valued contribution.” — Boiler plate. Axiomatically, any staff member who does not nick the petty cash has made a valued contribution.
“He has led the finance function through challenging times” — Factual. He avoided lightning strikes and axe murderers during the period.
“In 2014 . . . advances were made.” — Hail to the chief. Stephen Hester became top dog at RSA that year.
“As we move deeper into delivery of improvement plans, now is a natural point for Richard to pursue new opportunities.” — Not that he’s a lightweight. No, siree
Corporate gratitude score: 6/10. The scale starts at 1/10 with: “In the best interests of all concerned, Mr Smith has stepped down”. It ends at 10/10 with: “Frank has been the beating heart of Smethwick Galvanising’s sales team for 20 years,” written by a boss whose cheeks are wet with tears.
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