We need to see the full regulator’s report to clear the stench of RBS

Sunday Times, 28.01.18

Royal Bank of Scotland chief executive Ross McEwan comes up before the beak this week. Well, the Treasury select committee to be precise. The honourable members are set to quiz McEwan over the bank’s controversial Global Restructuring Group’s (GRG) treatment of small businesses.


Committee chair Nicky Morgan tends to play to the gallery more than her predecessor, the forensic Andrew Tyrie — remember her criticism of Theresa May’s penchant for expensive leather trousers? Morgan’s penchant for a headline could lead to uncomfortable moments for McEwan should she opt to use his appearance to generate heat rather than light.


The headline McEwan wants is for the committee to concur with his insistence that while mistakes were made in GRG, there was no policy to engineer the failure of small businesses to snap up their assets at a knockdown price.


That may prove to be a hard sell.


Bank documents that used analogies such as “Rope: sometimes you need to let customers hang themselves” betray an appalling culture within RBS.


McEwan has stressed the author of the 2009 memo no longer works at the lender and that he has changed the bank’s culture. Many believe the changes are more cosmetic than real.


McEwan’s comments to me last year in which he criticised former customers for “badmouthing” RBS and making “false accusations” suggests to many the culture remains the same. RBS chairman Sir Howard Davies, who will also testify to the committee, has told me there was too much regulation of banks in the UK. Davies was head of former regulator the Financial Services Authority before he chaired the bank that took most public money after its near collapse.


The impression created from the testimony of RBS directors to the Treasury committee over branch closures this month was one of sublime indifference. Customers, it appears, can still go hang, while RBS serves itself.


All this undermines McEwan’s achievements at 71% state-owned RBS. The bank is poised to post its first profit, even if a potential multibillion-dollar penalty from the US Department of Justice over toxic mortgage bonds will likely put it back in the red the year after.


Laith Khalaf, banking analyst at Hargreaves Lansdown, said: “McEwan deserves some credit for putting to bed some of the legacy issues, most notably settling shareholder rights litigation and long-running claims from the US housing agencies. Brexit also cast a shadow over the Williams & Glyn separation, which has now been resolved by RBS through funding for challenger banks.”


The committee’s focus should be on the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA), which only bothered to investigate GRG after being embarrassed into it by then Treasury minister Sir Vince Cable.


It has fiercely resisted pressure to publish its investigation, by consultancy Promontory, but has been forced to issue summaries. The latest — released late last year after MPs threatened to force publication — made clear there was “widespread inappropriate treatment” of small businesses and that the bank systematically mistreated firms in GRG.


The summary also stated there was no evidence that GRG deliberately sent small businesses to the wall to asset-strip them and improve RBS’s balance sheet.


Using parliamentary privilege this month, Cable quoted the unpublished document as stating: “Management knew or should have known that this was an intended and co-ordinated strategy and that the mistreatment of business customers was a result of that”.


The FCA insists releasing further details of the report will prejudice its ongoing investigations into individuals at RBS who could still face sanction.


But publishing its report in full would offer the City an assurance that the £400m RBS set aside in 2016 for GRG claims is sufficient. It would also vindicate, or contradict, McEwan’s insistence that RBS acted correctly in most GRG cases. As things stand, the bank’s reputation will remain tainted by GRG after it has settled its other issues.


More important is the fact that the longer the FCA’s report remains in the shadows, the more the watchdog’s own credibility, impartiality, and effectiveness will be called into question.


For everyone concerned in this sorry, sordid affair — RBS, the small businesses lining up to take the bank to court, and the regulator — the best way to conclude this debacle is to place the FCA report in the public domain. The regulator must be transparent — or the stench surrounding GRG will forever taint our regulatory system.

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