Comment: Project Verde leaves Co–op boss a little shirty

PETER Marks, the bluff chief executive of the Co-operative Group, joked last year that in his negotiations with Lloyds’ boss Antonio Horta-Osorio on the Project Verde branches’ sale he had “got the shirt off his back and his cuff-links”. He must have given them back now.
Martin FlanaganMartin Flanagan
Martin Flanagan

The saga of the sale of the 600-plus Lloyds branches is over, the putative deal with the Co-op having fallen through and the partly taxpayer-owned high street lender is now bent on a flotation of the assets instead.

Moral: don’t try to sell hundreds of branches to a competitor, it doesn’t work.

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The collapse of the Co-op deal – a five-act play that initially involved NBNK Investments and Virgin Money as rival suitors – comes after the equally drawn-out and abortive acquisition of more than 300 Royal Bank of Scotland branches by Santander.

RBS is also now focused on putting those assets on the stock market. It seems, where major branches’ divestments are concerned, if IT issues and regulatory hurdles don’t run deals into the sand, then a poor economic backdrop or valuation disagreements will.

But, in the case of RBS and Lloyds, it seems to have taken a hellishly long period of “good progress”, hiccups, quiet uneventful spells filled in by media speculation, more good progress, occasional leaks on all sides, before the bottom fell out.

The Co-op partly blaming the weak economic context yesterday seems limp. The economy is no weaker than when it and Lloyds were hailing an agreement and a ground-breaking new competitive force on the British high street last year.

But apparent concerns at the Financial Services Authority (FSA) and its successor, the Financial Conduct Authority, about whether the Co-op Bank had the managerial expertise and financial heft to manage a banking business that would have doubled in size never went away.

Equally, industry eyes were askance at how long it had taken the Co-op to assimilate Britannia Building Society following its acquisition in 2009.

It legitimately threw into question how quickly and effectively it could handle any integration of the Project Verde outlets.

In terms of branch sales, Project Verde has gone the way of RBS’s Project Rainbow – project discontinued.

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Now, perhaps it is time to revisit that old chestnut of National Australia Bank, which remains disenchanted with its UK business having labelled it a “problem asset”.

The group is overhauling its Clydesdale and Yorkshire operations amid market speculation that it could put them up for sale or float them as a separate entity.

Keep watching this space.

Getting the maverick mortar’s aim right

Cynics may be losing the will to live in terms of the latest developments from the Bank of England and Treasury’s Funding for Lending (FLS) scheme. FLS has been more a maverick mortar than big bazooka in business lending.

But the septic sceptics should hold judgment. The ten-fold increase in funds that banks will now be able to draw down for lending to small businesses, to try and get this key sector revving again, is a big improvement to the initiative.

Conversely, if credit advanced to SMEs stays stubbornly low, the argument that they don’t want to borrow in this uncertain economic climate will be unanswerable.