Royal Bank of Scotland: Not yet mended


BBC business editor Robert Peston peers into the fog of banking results

Having just stepped off an overnight flight, I am even less tolerant than usual of the pea soup that is presented by a mega bank such as Royal Bank of Scotland as its annual results.

To be fair to RBS, its figures - which run to 273 pages of tables and written interpretation - are only slightly more baffling than Barclays' were last week.

It is a nightmare trying to work out what the true story is at banks like these, because of all the revaluations of debt, the restatements of prior years due to disposals, the marking-to-market of some investments and loans and the provisions against losses on others, the impact of historic takeovers, the sheer size, diversity and complexity of their operations, and so on.

For Royal Bank of Scotland, for example, we are presented with a pro-forma operating profit, a statutory attributable loss, profits for its "core" operations and losses for its "non core" operations.

All these figures tell you something about RBS, but they are not exactly saying the same thing.

When it comes to banks, there is an argument that all the accounting reforms of the past decade have served to make them even more impenetrable than they were when I started looking at these important financial beasts in the 1980s.

Back then the criticism of banks' results was that they were whatever fiction the general managers at the time decided to publish, because of their ability to disguise the underlying trend with so-called general provisions against losses and transfers to hidden reserves.

These days the criticism would be that most of the banks' boards won't have the faintest idea what is really going on in their organisations, unless they have superhuman analytical abilities.

So what is there to say about RBS's performance in 2010? Well on most measures, RBS did better than in 2009.

The statutory attributable loss was £1.1bn, down from £3.6bn in the previous year and £24.3bn in the annus horribilis of 2008. But, to state the obvious, on that measure it is still making a loss - almost three years on from the great banking crash.

But seen from the perspective which RBS seems to prefer (because it comes at the top of its press release), the bank is back in profit.

The "pro forma" operating profit - which includes an adjustment for the weirdness of the structure of RBS's ill-fated takeover of the rump of ABN in 2007 - was £1.9bn, compared with a loss of £6.1bn in the previous year (although precisely a year ago, RBS said the operating loss for 2009 was £6.2bn, so £100m has gone missing some time between then and now - but I suppose £100m is a mere bagatelle in the context of losses as large as these).

So depending on your point of view, RBS either returned to profit last year or made a smaller loss - both measures of progress.

But there is another story in these 273 pages. What RBS defines as its core - the bits it wants to keep - made an operating profit of £7.4bn, which is an impressively big number, but it is actually 12 per cent lower than what this core made in 2009.

So on that measure, RBS went into reverse.

Except that all of that fall is attributable to its investment banking division, Global Banking and Markets, which had an exceptional and unsustainable bumper year in 2009. By contrast, the bits of RBS which most people know and deal with - the retail and commercial operations - saw a rise in operating profits from £6.3bn to £7.4bn.

Here are a few final thoughts:

First, the post-tax valuation loss of £1.1bn on the insurance against future credit losses provided by taxpayers to RBS - which goes by the name of the Asset Protection Scheme - would tend to prove that taxpayers got the best of this deal (which you might say is only fair, given how much pain has been inflicted on the economy by reckless banks).

Second, if you're wondering why RBS's shares seem incapable of breaking through the price paid by taxpayers for their whopping 83% stake - 50p or so - the best explanation is probably RBS's ratio of core Tier 1 capital to assets (which measures how much capital banks have in reserve to absorb losses and protect depositors from those losses).

At 10.7% that capital ratio looks okay compared with many of its international rivals, although it is a bit lower than last year. However, RBS is exactly the kind of bank which may be hit with a capital surcharge by a combination of this year's deliberations by both the Basel Committee on Banking Supervision and the UK's Banking Commission.

If RBS is forced by regulators to increase its core Tier 1 ratio (and the chances of that are way better than 50:50), that would probably both delay the time at which it resumes paying dividends and force it to ask investors for yet more capital.

Which is why it may be some time before RBS shares are significantly above 50p each, such that the Treasury can sell taxpayers' RBS shares back into the market at anything which looks like a proper profit.

Finally, some would say that the RBS number which really matters is the value of the assets owned by shareholders - which, to boringly repeat, includes all of us, since taxpayers have that enormous RBS stake. That number for net tangible equity per share has fallen again, from 51.3p per share to 51.1p per share at the end of 2010.

Unless and until the value of net assets owned by us as RBS shareholders starts to rise in a serious and sustained way, it will be difficult to argue that this bank has been fixed.

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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