EU bank stress tests: vulnerability of Barclays and RBS under scrutiny


Analysts are scrutinising the potential hit Royal Bank of Scotland and Barclays could take to their financial strength at times of market turbulence following the publication of EU-wide health checks on the financial sector, reports The Guardian.

The Bank of England said the stress tests, which were overseen by the pan-European banking regulator, showed the UK banking sector was resilient enough to cope with downturns in the economy and the markets.

Barclays, however, which on Friday had reported profits of £2bn for the first half of 2016, ends up with a 7.3 per cent capital ratio – about a four-percentage-point knock – at the end of 2018 under the regulator’s three-year test conditions. RBS takes a seven-percentage-point hit and its capital ratio falls to 8 per cent.

Of the 51 banks tested, one – Italy’s Banca Monte dei Paschi di Siena – had its entire capital base wiped out under the imaginary scenario of a big drop in economic growth.

Policymakers and investors had been on alert for a poor performance by the Italian bank. It announced a package of measures to shore up its financial position, a move it will hope prevents a meltdown in the Italian banking sector, which could send shock waves through the markets.

Banks from Italy, Ireland, Spain and Austria fared worst in the tests. None of the four UK banks – Lloyds and HSBC were also tested – dropped below the legal minimum of 4.5 per cent capital ratios. The European Banking Authority did not set a pass or fail level as it did in 2014, when it last conducted tests and set a minimum of 5.5 per cent.

Analysts at Bernstein said the drop in the capital levels of Barclays and RBS – which is 73 per cent owned by the government – was a surprise, and forecasted a bigger knock than had been predicted during separate assessments conducted in previous years by the Bank of England’s regulation arm, the Prudential Regulation Authority.

“The adverse results on these two as compared to the PRA stress tests from last year definitely came as a surprise to us,” they said. “The EBA stress tests are an input into the capital process for the UK banks but the key test of the banks will actually be in the Bank of England stress tests later this year.”

The tests are set on each bank’s financial position at the end of 2015 and projects how they would fare by the end of 2018 without taking any steps to sell off businesses or other management efforts to raise capital.

The analysts at Bernstein said it “puts to bed any dividend hopes for the [RBS] till at least the end of next year”. The government is finding it tricky to sell off its stake because the share price is trading lower than the average 50.2p it paid. RBS shares are trading at about 190p.

Their view is that for Barclays the disposal of businesses such as those in Africa instigated by its new chief executive, Jes Staley, would be important.

Barclays said the stress tests result did not take account of these sell-offs. “The stress test has been carried out applying a static balance sheet assumption as at December 2015, and therefore does not take into account subsequent or future business strategies and management actions. It is not a forecast of Barclays’ profits.”

RBS’s finance director, Ewen Stevenson, said the results showed the bank’s “continued progress towards transforming the balance sheet to being safe and sustainable”. He said: “We are confident that in delivering our strategy, we will transform RBS into a low risk, resilient bank.”

HSBC’s capital falls to 8.7 per cent under the scenarios and Lloyds Banking Group, which is 9% owned by the taxpayer, to just above 10 per cent. “These results are significantly above the group’s minimum capital requirements,” said Lloyds. HSBC said: “Today’s results demonstrate HSBC’s continuing capital strength.”

No banks from Cyprus, Greece or Portugal were big enough to fall within the scope of the test, which looked at four main risks: a rise in bond yields; rising public and private sector debt; weak profits at banks; and stresses from outside the banking sector.

The cost of possible fines and legal action for wrongdoing was also included, and David Strachan, a partner at Deloitte, said 15 banks estimated an impact of so-called conduct risk of more than €1bn (£840m). “Analysts are likely to pore over the results for some time. Differences in capital positions between two banks could be superficial,” he said. “What matters more is to understand the full regulatory capital requirement for each bank, and its capacity and flexibility to take actions to respond to the shock. This complexity may add difficultly in initially understanding the results.”