RATING agency Standard & Poor’s (S&P) cast doubt on the strength of the UK banking sector’s recovery yesterday, saying lenders had been buoyed by a rising economic tide.

The claim, made after this month’s bumper first-half earnings season, was immediately rebuffed by banking industry figures. While institutions realise they have been helped by an improving trading environment, they argue they have made strenuous efforts to shrink their balance sheets and sell off non-essential assets.

S&P said a sustained upturn in UK banking performance remained “far from certain” despite a series of forecast-smashing results earlier in August. Stronger players Barclays and HSBC generated pre-tax gains of £4bn and £7bn respectively, while state-owned Lloyds Banking Group earned £1.6bn and Royal Bank of Scotland made a profit of £1.1bn.

But the fortunes of banks are closely tied to an uncertain economy, S&P said, with several lenders still deeply reliant on government-guaranteed wholesale funding and in need of further refinancing in the coming years.

The report concludes that the future credit ratings of British banks are likely to largely remain out of the hands of their management teams. S&P’s key concern is government economic policy, which it expects to squeeze incomes.

Analysts wrote: “While a range of management actions have contributed to the improved performance, in our view, the more important contributory factors were the developments beyond the control of banks’ management… We expect economic and market developments that are largely beyond the control of banks’ management teams will continue to disproportionately influence UK bank ratings throughout the remainder of 2010.”

Angela Knight, chief executive of the British Bankers’ Association, said: “The UK banks have done substantial capital raisings and have been repairing their balance sheets, writing off bad loans and so on. That has been widely recognised – a lot of work has taken place.”

A source close to one of the part-nationalised banks emphasised the efforts being made by Lloyds and RBS’ management teams to shed non-core units to comply with European Union rules on accepting state aid. RBS has sold its share of a commodities trading joint venture, Sempra, to JPMorgan and offloaded 318 high street branches to Santander.

“Banks are working on their core businesses too, trying to attract more deposits,” the source said.