Co-op pulls out of talks to buy Lloyds branches

The Co-operative Group has given up on its ambition to become a major challenger in high street banking by pulling out of talks to buy 632 branches from Lloyds Banking Group, dealing a blow to the government’s ambitions to bolster competition among the big banks.

After more than a year of discussions, the biggest mutual in the country admitted on Wednesday that it could not proceed with a deal that would have created a 974-strong branch network – three times its current size – and a large increase in its share of current accounts to 7%.

The government had worked hard behind the scenes to try to facilitate a transaction with the Co-op that could have fostered competition on a high street still dominated by the “big four” of Lloyds, Royal Bank of Scotland, HSBC and Barclays. Richard Lloyd, executive director of the consumer body Which?, said it was a “setback” for the government’s attempt to “tackle the unhealthy dominance of our biggest banks”.

The branches – which Lloyds had been selling under the codename Verde – must be spun off by November under instruction from Europe because of the £20bn of taxpayer funds ploughed into Lloyds during the financial crisis.

A Treasury spokesman described the failure of the talks as a “commercial matter”. The government remains determined to promote greater competition in the banking sector in order to provide consumers with more choice, the Treasury spokesman said.

But the shadow financial secretary to the Treasury, Chris Leslie, said: “This is not only bad news for the chancellor but for customers too.”

António Horta-Osório, chief executive of Lloyds, was told on Tuesday night by the outgoing Co-op boss, Peter Marks, that the deal was off. The bailed-out bank, 39% owned by the taxpayer, will now revert to its back-up plan to float the branches on the stock market through an initial public offering (IPO) under the old brand name of TSB.

In a terse statement, the Co-op said it was “not in the best interests” of its members, who in effect own the group, to continue with the talks. “This decision reflects the impact of the current economic environment, the worsened outlook for economic growth and the increasing regulatory requirements on the financial services sector in general,” the Co-op said.

For Marks, who retires as chief executive next month, the decision to pull out will be a major disappointment. But he insisted speculation that Co-op would abandon banking altogether was wrong: “The Co-operative group [goes forward] under our clear strategy and, as part of that, we will continue to develop our bank for the long term, offering a real alternative on the high street with our strong, established brand and our reputation as a trusted financial services business.” But the decision will ultimately lie with his successor Euan Sutherland, who joins from Kingfisher in a fortnight.

Horta-Osório said he was disappointed with the move. “However, we are well advanced in our plans to bring the Verde business to the UK high street during the summer through the TSB Bank, and will now proceed with the option to IPO the business, subject to the necessary approvals,” he said.

“The TSB bank will be an attractive retail and commercial bank that will have around 630 branches across the UK, a strong management team and will be a real challenger on the high street.”

The collapse of the deal suggests that two new branch networks could be floated on the stock market next year as Royal Bank of Scotland is expected to sell more than 300 branches under instruction from Europe after its talks with Santander fell apart last year.

Labour’s City minister at the time of the banking crisis, Lord Myners, blamed the government. “Government undermining of confidence in banking has destroyed this deal,” Myners said, adding there was “little prospect” of RBS getting “decent value” for the branches it has to sell either.

The TSB brand – phased out by Lloyds after it bought the bank in the 1990s – will be revived by September, Lloyds said, and will operate as a separate business within Lloyds until a selloff is complete. Lloyds may need to ask the EU for an extension to the sale period.

Some 4.8 million Lloyds customers were to have transferred to the Co-op and as many as 7,000 staff. “There are no direct impacts to customers as a result of today’s announcements. Customers don’t need to do anything and can carry on banking in the same way as they do now, accessing their accounts as usual via the branch, telephone and online banking,” Lloyds said.

The decision to withdraw was described as a “good one” by Ismail Erturk, banking expert at Manchester Business School. “Given the current negative economic environment and higher capital requirements for banks by new international regulations, Co-op’s members are better served by less expensive organic growth strategies,” said Erturk.

Πηγή: The Guardian