With Brexit talks effectively frozen as Theresa May battles her cabinet ministers over the details of the "backstop" deal that's needed to avert a "hard" Brexit - that is, a separation wherein the UK would leave the EU customs union and single market, forcing it to fall back on WTO rules governing trade - UK banks are joining their European peers in bracing for the worst. After reporting lackluster Q3 profits on Friday, shares of RBS helped drag the FTSE to its lowest level since 2016 as CEO Ross McEwan warned analysts that the bank has set aside 100 million pounds ($128 million) as a buffer to reflect "greater uncertainty" surrounding Brexit negotiations.
According to Bloomberg, McEwan said although his meeting last week with Prime Minister Theresa May and other UK CEOs left him with an "optimistic sense" regarding Brexit, he still felt some extra precautions were warranted. The bank's shares dropped nearly 6% on its earnings report, its largest one-day decline in two years.
While McEwan tried to reassure analysts that the provision was "very low," they remained unconvinced.
"Impairments were worse than expected," wrote Joseph Dickerson, an analyst at Jefferies International Ltd. "The incremental charge is not explained well."
Questioners on conference calls concurred, pressing McEwan and interim chief financial officer Katie Murray for more detail. Murray referred to the IFRS 9 accounting rules, which require companies to take a more forward-looking view. "Risk of a disorderly Brexit has increased," Murray said. "We’re not where we thought we would be as a nation by this time this year."
McEwan has warned that a recession could result if the UK leaves the EU without a treaty, while other UK bank executives have warned that a no-deal Brexit could disrupt supply chains and hurt their customers. The UK is set to begin the process of leaving the EU at the close of the first quarter, which will begin a modest transition period.
McEwan has previously said a "bad Brexit" could result in a recession. May is racing against time to secure an agreement with the European Union and battling some of her own cabinet ministers before Britain formally leaves the bloc on March 29, and businesses are increasingly getting nervous. A no-deal Brexit reverting to World Trade Organization rules would slash economic growth to just 0.3 percent in 2019, the National Institute of Economic and Social Research said on Friday.
Among other bank executives who addressed Brexit this quarter, Lloyds Banking Group Plc finance chief George Culmer acknowledged the uncertainty, but expects May to reach a deal. Barclays Plc CEO Jes Staley has said he’s concerned that disruption to supply chains and the economic fallout from a hard Brexit could eventually hurt his business customers.
Bloomberg explained why a hard Brexit would be such a nightmare for banks in a recent QuickTake: In addition to the increased capital requirements that EU banks operating in the UK would face, a no-deal Brexit would create confusion about derivatives clearing, licensing and market infrastructure. Read the full explanation here.