Lloyds TSB looks grim

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The dividend at Lloyds TSB has been held for the fifth year in a row and the bank has published a pretty grisly set of full-year figures. Growth in the core UK retail business is deeply unimpressive (especially in mortgages) and their expansion in wholesale seems fraught with risk. You have to hope the dividend is not being held to give the bank funds to invest: this management team should give back what they can. The shares are off nearly 4 per cent. Bad debts jumped by a fifth last year but Lloyds echoed what Barclays and A&L said this week about bad debts peaking. You can watch Jane Croft’s quick run-down on the figures on FT.com and Lex has commented on the dividend.

My colleague Peter Thal Larsen, who has been studying the figures, thinks I’m too harsh. He reminds me it’s only a year since everybody was wondering if Lloyds would cut the dividend. Growth may be unexciting but there are signs of progress in places such as bancassurance and savings, he says. And, he adds, if Lloyds were to return capital, it would be much more likely to do through something more flexible than a dividend increase, such as a buy-back.

Hans Snook and Niccolo de Masi have stepped down as chairman and chief executive of Monstermob after shareholders today approved a takeover bid from Spain’s LaNetro Zed. Richard Faber, the Barclays brothers’ man on the board, is also leaving. The Spaniards, with 52 per cent of the company, have put in their own guys plus Martin Higginson, the ex-chief executive. Linktone has given up its plans to make a counterbid.

WPP Group sounded upbeat about future prospects this morning as it reported record pre-tax profits for 2006, up 15.2 per cent to £783m.

We’re doing more on Permira and its attempt to win the debate over the role of private equity, following our front page interview with Damon Buffini this morning. You can listen to some of that online. He comes across fluently in his interview with us, and with the Today programme this morning, but he has a big task ahead of him to win over his critics. Private equity’s case is good but complicated. Buffini does much to make that case in his interview with us (we’ll have more detail from it in tomorrow’s paper and you can read the transcript today) but he and his fellow private equity executives have a lot more explaining to do.

We’re also working on a package about smaller companies becoming more international, following this week’s news of Panmure Gordon’s acquisition in San Francisco.

Rumour of the day: Paul Murphy and Robert Orr on FT Aphaville are picking up whispers that the CVC-led consortium trying to buy J Sainsbury may soon be ready to announce their plans. And ITV shares are up 4 per cent on rather odd rumours that Sir Christopher Bland, who is stepping down as chairman of BT, will join Michael Grade in some capacity at ITV.

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