x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Life saving strategy comes back to haunt Barclays

Another day, another disaster at Barclays. Yesterday brought news that the embattled British bank would have to spend an extra £1 billion to cover the affects of yet another scandal.

The amounts being set aside by Barclays to cover scandals are beginning to dwarf profits. Paul Thomas / Bloomberg News
The amounts being set aside by Barclays to cover scandals are beginning to dwarf profits. Paul Thomas / Bloomberg News

Another day, another disaster at Barclays. Yesterday brought news that the embattled British bank would have to spend an extra £1 billion (Dh5.78bn) to cover the effects of yet another scandal, this time the widespread mis-selling of financial products to hapless customers over years of admitted sharp practice by the bank.

Now it will cost Barclays at least £3.4bn to cover the fines, compensations and payouts to people who were hoodwinked into buying financial products that turned out to be certain losers, or totally unsuitable, or both. The amounts set aside to cover scandals are beginning to dwarf profits. How much longer can such a situation go on?

It has been a truly awful 12 months for the bank, with revelations about mis-selling following on from the interest rate-fixing scandal. Barclays will no doubt point out that it is not alone in facing these issues; all British high street banks are charged with (and have largely admitted) mis-selling; most big-name global banks are in the dock over interest-rate fixing.

And so far, Barclays has largely stayed clear of money-laundering or sanctions-busting charges, which have hit rivals such as HSBC and Standard Chartered.

But Barclays faces a problem the others have so far not endured, and which is of particular interest to the Arabian Gulf region. In 2008, as the financial crisis was threatening to engulf the global banking system, Barclays negotiated what looked like a life-saving deal with cash-rich foreign entities.

In two tranches over summer and autumn that year, investors in Qatar, Abu Dhabi and Singapore took part in a capital-raising plan that injected nearly £12bn into the bank, saving it from being taken over by the British government, as happened to two of Barclays' big rivals.

One of those deals has come back to haunt Barclays. London authorities - in the shape of the Financial Services Authority and the Serious Fraud Office - are probing the intricacies of the Qatar deal. Initially, they were looking at whether Barclays had entered into inappropriate contracts with Qatar as a consequence of the capital raising.

But last week the stakes were escalated significantly with the revelation that authorities in the United Kingdom were also examining allegations that Barclays had lent a Qatar entity cash to help to finance its share purchases.

This is an extremely grey area in banking and corporate regulation. To pay a fee for a capital-raising exercise is deemed within the rules; to enter into contracts with a new investor is (probably) also above board.

But to organise a share-support operation using the bank's own capital, and to keep details of that deal secret, is a different matter, and it is this scenario that has attracted the interest of the authorities.

Meanwhile, Credit Suisse, which also raised money from Qatar as the crisis unfolded, has admitted lending cash to Qatar to help to finance the purchase.

However, the difference is that the Swiss bank went to the Swiss financial regulator and got approval for the arrangement before it happened.

Whatever course of action the UK authorities decide on, the revelations must cause a reappraisal of the bank's 2008 strategy. Back then, it was applauded for having persuaded a wealthy investor that the bank was different from the rest, and had an independent future that merited a vote of confidence from the Gulf and elsewhere.

Now, it all looks very different. The notion of hard-up Barclays, desperate to stay out of government control in a life-threatening financial crisis, lending money to cash-rich Qatar to buy its plummeting shares is bizarre, rather like a beggar offering the rich man a loan if he'll "help him out for a cup of tea".

To be fair to Barclays, there is new management at the helm now. The new chief executive Antony Jenkins has said he will not take up £1 million of bonus entitlement.

He has also cleared out some of the old guard with the departure of the finance director and legal counsel.

Both, in any case, will probably be busy helping the UK authorities understand the intricacies of the Qatar deal for the foreseeable future.

 

fkane@thenational.ae