A wake-up call for board of Lloyds

SIR Win Bischoff nailed his colours to the mast yesterday: if António Horta-Osório has to beg off sick again due to exhaustion, he, Sir Win, will “consider his position”.

An impressive gambit, perhaps – except that Sir Win is already on his way out. He’s likely to retire in the next year.

And little was said about the catastrophic governance that fermented the whole situation in the first place.

Far from intervening early enough to deploy their wisdom and experience, the bank’s board of directors installed the youngest CEO of any major British bank (backed to the hilt by UKFI, the taxpayer vehicle) and then simply let him do his thing.

Nor does Sir Win appear to have learned a lot if his words yesterday are anything to go by: “[António] is a man who does self-assessment very well,” he claimed. “He will be very aware.”

Meanwhile, Horta-Osório will return to lead a somewhat different team from the one he had planned.

While he was sleeping – something he found hard to do while on the job – a new chief financial officer, George Culmer, was selected and a key recruit, Nathan Bostock, had a change of heart about coming to the bank.

Those changes are all the more important given that Horta-Osório’s first order of business will be to work out how he is going to devolve more power to his executives.

Even as he works out a completely new management style, he will be charged with continuing the shrinkage of Lloyds’ balance sheet and offloading the 632 branches the bank is being forced to sell due to EU competition law.

The balance sheet is of particular urgency, given that the bank needs to raise at least £15-20bn next year in markets that are close to lockdown.

While a complex debt swap has cut down its needs somewhat, it will only get so far by chopping and changing the fine print of its bonds.

Meanwhile, the branch sale is far from a done deal: in many ways, choosing a preferred bidder is merely the start of the trickiest phase.

Horta-Osório knows this full well. He was on the other side of the process at Santander UK when the bank successfully bid for over 300 RBS branches.

Yet despite the banks in that case being of more comparable size, the process has stalled, with the deadline for completion pushed back.

The Co-op has a lot in its favour: it is already doing a £730m overhaul of its IT systems to set up a new platform called Finacle, and can therefore design it around the new branches. But it will still be a horribly complex process.

And the political pressure on Horta-Osório to lend more and explain himself before committees of MPs will only grow more acute as the UK veers back towards recession. That is something that will prove more difficult to delegate.

As to the rest, however, the bottom line is that he will have to make do with having less control, lower standards – and more sleep.


Twitter: @citysamuel