February 10, 2012

Barclays' profit before tax of £5.9bn, or £5.6bn on the adjusted measure it prefers, may seem huge.
But it was 3% lower than in 2010. And perhaps more importantly it is less than half what Barclays' executives, led by the chief executive Bob Diamond, think the bank ought to be making - as measured by its return on equity capital.

Or to put it another way, these remain tough times for banks.

And at Barclays, the clearest sign of that is a return on equity of 6.6%, compared with a goal of 13% - and a warning from Mr Diamond that the bank may not be able to make that goal by the target date of 2013.

What's to blame? No surprises here: "worse than predicted macro economic conditions" says Mr Diamond, "in addition to new regulatory constraints".

There have been big changes in how the individual parts of the bank have been performing: profits earned in the UK have increased significantly, but losses from Barclays' European operations have (predictably) got worse.

Retail banking - the bit of the bank used by households and smaller businesses - has done much better. But profits in investment banking, or Barclays Capital, are down by almost a third.

For Barclays, financial performance is apparently no longer the be all and end all (and don't be cynical about this, please).

In fact for the first time I can remember for any big company, the first page of the results release is not about profits and dividends, but is headlined "citizenship".

It's a roster of how Barclays contributes to growth in the real economy, what it does for charity, how it rewards its owners and how it treats customers.

The important question - which it may well be too early to answer - is whether this is presentational spin, or whether it reflects a genuine shift in the culture of the bank.

For what it's worth, here are some of the achievements Barclays wishes to flag up: lending to small and medium size businesses of £14.7bn, which is more than what it agreed with the Treasury to lend as part of Project Merlin; bank complaints (excluding PPI related complaints) down 30%; support for 73,000 staff in "providing their time, skills and money to help disadvantaged people".

Barclays also lists as a "citizenship" highlight paying tax of £6.4bn globally and £2.9bn in the UK. Some would say paying tax is simply something we all have to do, and shouldn't really be highlighted as an achievement.

Also, goodness only knows what Barclays is including in those tax numbers - because its profit-and-loss account shows a global tax charge of just £1.9bn (including £325m as its share of the bank levy introduced by George Osborne last year).

What is also striking is that Barclays has increased its dividend payments to shareholders by 9% to 6p per share - which will cost it £732m.

Most owners would presumably see that as a good thing. But it does seem to fly in the face of the recent recommendation of the Bank of England and the Financial Services Authority - in the guise of the newly created Financial Policy Committee - that banks in general should not increase dividends, and instead should conserve cash and capital as a buffer against potential future losses.

On the other hand, Barclays would probably argue that it has implemented the spirit of what the Financial Policy Committee wanted in respect of discretionary rewards for employees (mostly bonuses) - which are down 26% to £2.6bn, with a big proportion of these now payable in shares rather than cash.

What about the famous or notorious bonuses? Well for the 24,000 employees of the investment bank, their bonuses are 30% lower on average at £64,000

For those fortunate enough to have earned a bonus much bigger than the average, the amount they can take out in cash this year has been capped at £65,000.

For employees of Barclays Capital, three-quarters of the bonuses they've earned for 2011 are "deferred" - which means they'll get their mitts on the cash and shares they've earned in lumps from 2013 to 2015.

For Mr Diamond and his fellow senior executives, annual incentives have been reduced by 48% on a "like for like" basis.

Now for 2010, Mr Diamond's annual performance incentive was £1.8m in shares. So does that mean he is receiving just under £1m for 2011?

That would be implausibly small - because the structure of his pay has changed, following his elevation from the role of president to chief executive.

His maximum bonus for 2011 would be 250% of £1.35m, or a maximum of £3.4m. It would be extraordinary if he was awarded as little as a third of this, given that Stephen Hester was awarded 60% of his maximum bonus.

If Mr Diamond was awarded more than £2m yesterday by Barclays' board - which is presumably what happened - we don't know whether he will follow Mr Hester's example by refusing it, or whether he will give it to charity or whether he will simply keep it.

A colleague of his said it would be very bad for the bank's ability to recruit the best young talent if Mr Diamond made a public gesture of giving the bonus back. "Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley are trying to woo the best people by saying that there's no point in working for a British bank like Barclays, because the climate of opinion in the UK is anti big rewards" said this Barclays director.

And apparently Mr Diamond would never say if he were to give the bonus to charity, because he likes to keep his charitable work secret.

As for the government, it won't attack him if he takes the bonus. An official said that it would be a matter for shareholders.

The Labour leader, Ed Miliband, may not be so reticent. He argues that because banks like Barclays will always be bailed out by taxpayers if they get into difficulties, those at the top should exercise restraint in what they're paid.

The counter-argument from the Treasury is that it is trying to reform the structure of banks, so that the implicit guarantee against failure provided by taxpayers is reduced.

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