Business

Barclays: The big questions

BBC business editor Robert Peston on Barclays banking

On this question of which profit number is the correct one for Barclays (see my earlier post), I feel obliged to point out that Barclays' profit after tax is down 46% to £3.5bn and profitable attributable to shareholders is 62% lower at £3.6bn.

The difference between these numbers and the pre-tax ones Barclays chooses to highlight is that the one-off gain on the sale of BGI is reinstated as an after-tax item for 2009.

For what it's worth, these after tax numbers are not irrelevant (even if they don't tell you much about the performance of Barclays continuing operations), in that they determine the dividends Barclays can afford to pay and the annual addition to capital resources - which in turn determines how much Barclays can lend.

Now you might think Barclays' senior directors would want to talk to you directly about all this, and explain how they gauge progress.

But the bank has declined our requests to interview the chief executive Bob Diamond or the chairman Marcus Agius.

Some may think it is particularly surprising that Mr Agius chose not to do an interview, in that when he is not chairing Barclays he serves as the senior non-executive director of the BBC.

Had they consented to be interviewed, the questions I would most wish to put to them would be these:

1) Do they agree with the Bank of England that there is a significant implicit taxpayer subsidy for Barclays Capital - which takes the form of Barcap being able to borrow relatively cheaply because its creditors know that if the whole bank were to get into difficulties, it would be rescued by taxpayers?

2) If that taxpayer subsidy (or artificially lowered cost of finance) were eliminated, would Barclays Capital make any kind of a profit at all - in a globally competitive market, would it be able to increase what it charges for its products and services sufficiently?

3) Do they fear that reforms likely to be proposed by the Banking Commission set up by the Treasury will be aimed at eliminating that subsidy, by separating Barcap from Barclays' retail operations - probably by prescribing that Barcap should be re-constituted as a legally separate subsidiary, with a wholly independent balance sheet and capital that is utterly quarantined from the rest of Barclays?

4) If they come to fear that the viability of Barcap were threatened by the Commission's reforms, how would they respond?

You can keep up with the latest from business editor Robert Peston by visiting his blog on the BBC News website.

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