At the weekend I wrote about Alistair Darling’s about-face on breaking up to big to fail financial institutions. Apparently, this was not a case of labour changing tack and finding regulatory religion, but rather of the European Union imposing its will on the British government. The EU is also dictating policy in Germany, the Netherlands and elsewhere.
RBS said in a statement on Monday it was in the final stages of talks with the European Commission about "some divestments not initially contemplated" to get EU approval for the billions of pounds it has received in state aid.
Selling Citizens, which has 26,000 employees, is said to be one of the options raised by Neelie Kroes, the EU competition commissioner.
She is also said to want the sale of the Churchill, Green Flag and Direct Line insurance businesses, more than 312 RBS branches in England, Global Merchant Acquiring, a card payments processing arm, and a reduction of the investment banking operations.
And RBS shares were down as the effects of the EU’s dictates became clear for that institution. Job losses were the most negative storyline and unions are expected to resist these moves vigorously. But asset sales were also part of the equation.
Royal Bank of Scotland‘s woes deepened tonight after unions condemned 3,700 branch job cuts as "absolute madness" on the eve of an announcement of a dramatic restructuring of the bank imposed by Brussels.
RBS is tomorrow expected to admit that it is being forced by the EU to make major commitments to cut back the size of its balance sheet and sell off some of its highest profile businesses in return for more than £40bn of state aid.
The bank acknowledged for the first time today that the EU was demanding more draconian measures than it had first envisaged, driving RBS shares down sharply. They closed at 38.65p, down 8%, giving the taxpayer a paper loss on its investment which breaks even at 50.5p share.
Analysts were concerned that the new chief executive, Stephen Hester, would need to redraw his business plan which is only eight months old, and that the profits of the bank could tumble by as much as £1.5bn a result of the EU’s intervention.
As the Treasury prepared to admit it was putting another £25bn into RBS to take the taxpayer’s stake up to 84% to help it participate in the government’s toxic asset protection scheme, unions reacted angrily to the front-line job cuts.
So, far from appearing forward-looking, Labour look quite reactionary here. Not only are they having to bend to the will of Neelie Kroes in Brussels, they also are being forced to top up their stakes in the banking black hole even while job cuts are being made. This is not the sort of thing that is likely to lead to more votes at the ballot box. (By the way, why do the British media insist on always using this picture of Darling in articles. I find it pretty comical.)
The UK is not the only country coming under pressure for state subsidies (a weak form of protectionism). In the Netherlands, ING was forced to break in two and reduce its balance sheet because of the EU’s policy on subsidies. In Germany, Commerzbank (in large part because of sick child Dresdner) is also going to have to reduce the size of its balance sheet. Commerzbank reported more than 1 billion euros in losses today, a sum which was a negative surprise (thinking back to Halloween, it was more trick than treat). Expect asset sales here too. I know that Fortis and Natixis are other institutions with problems. What is the EU doing there?
The situation is very fluid right now and many details are expected to emerge in the coming days. Expect the EU actions to put pressure on the U.S. which is also subsidizing its banks in an anti-competitive way.