Comment: Lloyds looks at loosening Scottish Widows links

Terry Murden. Picture: TSPL
Terry Murden. Picture: TSPL
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IT SEEMED it could be another case of the boy crying wolf, but this time it looks like Lloyds Banking Group is seriously contemplating severing its links with a part of its Scottish Widows business.

There have been many rumours over the years since Lloyds bought Widows in 2000, though usually regarding the main life and pensions business. In the early days, questions were raised about the bancassurance model and certainly moves were made to improve the cross-selling relationship between the two.

But that is no longer a concern and the latest speculation points to the possible sale of the fund management arm, Scottish Widows Investment Partnership (Swip), and for more pragmatic reasons: raising badly-needed cash.

As The Scotsman reported on Friday, Lloyds has hired Deutsche Bank to advise on its options as it continues to look at ways of scaling back non-core businesses to tidy up its balance sheet. Both Lloyds and Royal Bank of Scotland are under orders from the Bank of England to raise capital to fill holes in their reserves.

Analysts say Swip would command a price of between £800 million and £1 billion and already BlackRock and Legal & General have been identified as potential buyers.

Swip has £147bn of funds under management, mainly the savings and investments of Widows’ policyholders, so represents a juicy prize. Lloyds is saying nothing, though it has not gone out of its way to deny the gossip.

The watchdogs need watching

AS IF the long-awaited report into the collapse of HBOS was not enough to keep critics and conspiracy theorists awake at night, questions surrounding KPMG’s role as auditor are proving to be every bit as compelling.

The Financial Reporting Council (FRC) is awaiting orders to begin an investigation if the HBOS report points to a failure by the accountancy giant to properly check the bank’s books. It set aside a mere £370 million for bad loans in 2008, but losses by the combined Lloyds-HBOS group ran into billions.

Now the FRC itself is under scrutiny because of its own slow response to the HBOS scandal and because seven of its members are either current or former employees of KPMG. Already the chairman of the Financial Conduct Authority, John Griffith-Jones, who was chairman of the accountancy firm, is facing criticism.

The FRC insists none of those who have recently retired from KPMG will be involved in the investigation, but critics are questioning the independence of the body.

Hospitality starts at home

THIS newspaper once ran a mini-campaign to urge the country’s hotels and restaurants to make sure they offered Scottish beer alongside the numbingly unimaginative selection of Budweiser, Beck’s and Peroni. Ask for a Scottish beer in a Scottish restaurant or hotel bar and, more often than not, they cannot help.

At a meeting with a London businessman last week in one of Edinburgh’s premier hotels the problem of buying Scottish produce was once again embarrassingly evident. After being offered one of the above I had to ask if there were any Scottish alternatives.

“Er...yes. We have Duchess, I think,” came the reply.

“Duchess? Do you mean Deuchars?”

“Ah, yes,” said my Latvian waitress. At least she recognised that “Duchess” was Scottish, though she seemed surprised when I said it was brewed in Edinburgh.

There is a serious point here. Imagine dining in a French restaurant and having to ask if there are any French wines available. Or asking an Italian if they served pizza.

The “campaign” – more of a wake-up call – highlighted the general level of disinterest or ignorance, including one restaurant hosting the British Bankers’ Association dinner and listing Belhaven beers under Tennent’s ales (Belhaven is owned by Greene King), and another top establishment in Glasgow whose waitress said: “We have Innis & Gunn, is that Scottish?” Today it wins a Queen’s Award for Enterprise.

Food and drink is a big part of the Scottish economy, but the hospitality industry has some way to go in proving that it is doing its bit to support it.

Twitter: @TerryMurden1