Britain’s big banks lifted by strong third quarter - but the hard part is yet to come

Banks reported a bumper third quarter but face a tough end to the year as the UK braces for a second national lockdown

Banks

Just days before the second national lockdown was announced, Barclays, Lloyds, HSBC, Standard Chartered and NatWest were unusually upbeat.

Each reported much better than expected results for the three months to September, triggering renewed talk of shareholder payouts from bullish bank bosses. Bad debts had not piled up as feared. 

Offering heavy hints to the Bank of England, which froze bank dividends at the start of the pandemic, Barclays’ chief Jes Staley said the bank’s balance sheet is the healthiest it has been in “modern history”. 

Standard Chartered and HSBC both said they would consider dishing out dividends after beating City estimates. Profits at Lloyds, the country's largest high-street lender seen as a bellwether to the economy, surged as mortgage applications hit a 12-year high.

NatWest said provisions for loans that might not be repaid this year is now at the lower end of estimates

It was the quarter shareholders needed. As lenders continue to grapple with the economic fallout of the pandemic, Brexit uncertainty, a ban on dividends and ultra-low interest rates, some good news was welcomed.

Bank shares, which have been battered this year, shot up on the day each lender reported its earnings.

The results are considered a mirror to the economy. In September, official figures showed that households put aside record savings during the pandemic lockdown, paying down debts and boosting bank balances to set the scene for a strong rebound. 

The Bank of England’s chief economist Andy Haldane said in late September that the economy had recovered "far-faster" than anyone expected over the previous four months.   

But the hardest part is yet to come. Bank executives have been talking to Treasury officials for weeks about how to keep their reputation intact when the time comes for them to start chasing debts.

Even before a new lockdown was announced, lenders feared that the end of taxpayer-funded support schemes could create a legion of people unable to afford their mortgages, hurting house prices and resulting in bad loans piling up. 

Boris Johnson's announcement of a national four-week lockdown adds further fears for businesses on the brink and in turn the banks they need cash from.

Lenders were reportedly called to an urgent meeting to discuss the matter on Monday morning, and by the afternoon the deadline to apply for government-backed emergency coronavirus loans had been extended from the end of this month to the end of January.

The moments top bank executives have long-feared - when they are forced to collect debts on behalf of the taxpayer and risk being painted as villains of the crisis - has been pushed further into the future as support schemes are extended. 

As a result the potential for defaults is also rising.  

"It [a second lockdown] is unhelpful for banks as it increases the risk of business failure and household financial difficulties. This cycle of rolling lockdowns cannot continue indefinitely as there is a limit to government debt build," said John Cronin, a banks analyst at Goodbody. 

The Bank of England’s chief economist Andy Haldane said in late September that the economy had recovered "far-faster" than anyone expected.  

The industry, which has already got money out to over 1.4m businesses under the government-backed lending schemes, will be dealing with a new wave in applications for coronavirus loans just as it faces the prospect of negative interest rates.

Big banks have less than two weeks left to show regulators how prepared they are for the unprecedented move. 

HSBC has already warned that it could start charging for basic banking services as profits are crushed by the record low base rate of 0.1pc. A further cut into negative territory would mean that banks would be charged for hoarding cash rather than lending it out.  

Following a surprisingly good summer, darker days are ahead. Investors boosted by last week's earnings will no doubt find that their brief hopes of a dividend payout have already begun to fade. Next year will not be easy.  

“The pandemic brought banks a renewed sense of purpose in 2020 - providing liquidity to the real economy,” economists from ING said last week.

“Helped along by monetary and government policies, banks have indeed played their part in the crisis response. Going into 2021, the delayed impact of the pandemic will make itself felt.”