Lloyds CEO António Horta-Osório. Picture: BLOOMBERG
Lloyds CEO António Horta-Osório. Picture: BLOOMBERG

Plans for a change of leadership at two of Britain’s major banks could hardly be better timed. The economic shock of the pandemic, plus the uncertainty around Brexit, will probably demand a strategic re-set at both Lloyds Banking Group and Barclays.

Lloyds, the UK’s biggest mortgage lender, said this week that CEO António Horta-Osório will step down in 2021 once a successor is found. While Barclays says no search is underway, the lender could seek a replacement for CEO Jes Staley as soon as next year and recently reached out to potential candidates, Bloomberg News reported.

Just before markets turned in response to the spread of Covid-19, Lloyds’s stock price was roughly unchanged from its level when Horta-Osório started in 2011, while Barclays’s shares were down nearly 25% under Staley. Both stocks have fallen sharply in the crisis this year, with the less diversified Lloyds the worst hit. They languish close to lows last seen during the financial and eurozone debt crises, and trade at discounts to peers.

In February, Barclays said Staley was being investigated by the UK regulator over how he characterised his relationship with deceased financier and sex offender Jeffrey Epstein. The board unanimously backed him after concluding Staley had been sufficiently transparent with the company.

But questions around Barclays’s strategy have been mounting. Staley staked his success on maintaining a sizeable securities unit that could compete with Wall Street peers. Among the handful of European firms that still aspire to run global investment banks, Barclays has the advantage of owning an established US franchise through the Lehman Brothers business it acquired during the financial crisis.

The approach has rightly attracted opposition. Activist Edward Bramson has been pushing for a retreat from trading given its relatively poor returns. Barclays’s UK commercial lending business posted a return on tangible equity of about 18% last year, compared with 8% at the investment bank. At the group level, return on tangible equity stood at 9%.

True, a trading surge in the first quarter of 2020 helped the securities unit post better returns than the UK business, which had to book provisions for loan losses. But it’s questionable whether this reversal will last once debt markets return to normal activity levels and volatility subsides.

Barclays probably needs to dial back, be more selective in investment banking (as are BNP Paribas and Deutsche Bank) and look elsewhere for growth. Investors would likely reward a less volatile firm with a higher valuation, strengthening the shares as an acquisition currency. Buying a cheaper peer could go some way towards diluting the risk of the investment bank. That opportunity may however not present itself.

In the meantime, a further pruning of UK retail branches (more than half are within a 10-minute drive of each other, according to analysts at UBS Group) and improving cross-selling in the consumer bank look like sensible and available options. All told, that could be enough to re-energise the strategy.

Further growth

As for Lloyds, after almost a decade on the job, Horta-Osório is one of the longest-serving CEOs in European banking of his time. Having exited state ownership by repairing the balance sheet and becoming more efficient (the cost-income ratio is the envy of European peers) Lloyds is now wrestling with a margin squeeze in the cut-throat home-loans market. It is also exposed to prolonged UK economic weakness and any negative impact from Britain leaving the EU.

Horta-Osório’s successor has little room for manoeuvre. Overseas expansion would be highly risky. That leaves pushing for further growth in wealth management and insurance, as is reportedly already envisaged.

Aside from two dominant players, the UK market for financial advice is fragmented with one-third of advisers working for firms with fewer than five professionals. That’s an obvious target for a bank with many affluent account holders on its books.

Despite the historically generous pay packets, running big lenders is not an enviable job. A candidate with a choice might find it easier to make a decisive break with the past at Barclays than at Lloyds.

Bloomberg

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