RBS offers poisoned chalice

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RBS Reuters Pedestrians are reflected in the window of a branch of the Royal Bank of Scotland in London. Picture: Suzanne Plunkett

Dublin/London - Wanted: Investment banking boss. Must be willing to fall on sword if division is embroiled in scandal you had no knowledge of, even if your bosses keep their jobs.

Royal Bank of Scotland is unlikely to pitch its hunt to replace departing investment banking chief John Hourican exactly like that, but potential contenders could see the post as a poisoned chalice after news of his exit on Wednesday.

RBS made clear Hourican was not directly culpable and had no knowledge of the rigging of Libor interest rates by its traders that landed the bank with a 390-million-pound ($612 million)fine. But Chairman Philip Hampton said “one senior person” was accepting responsibility for the scandal and that was enough.

“I think you can push the accountability of the captain of the bridge too far,” said Hampton, adding there was nothing to be gained by pursuing “multiple accountabilities ... for the sake of blood on the carpet”.

RBS has massively shrunk its investment bank since Chief Executive Stephen Hester was drafted in to turn the bank around following its 45-billion-pound government bailout in 2008.

At its peak, RBS's “global banking and markets” business had a balance sheet of over 1 trillion pounds.

Under Hourican, the division whose break-neck expansion had led to the bank's near collapse, has been chopped down to less than half that and renamed “markets and international”.

RBS, 82-percent owned by the state, has sold off or shut down much of its equities operations, though it retains significant fixed income and foreign exchange businesses.

Investment banking now contributes just 20 percent of RBS's operating profit compared with around half in 2007. Hester is adamant that RBS needs to retain an investment bank to properly service its corporate clients but has conceded the division will shrink further - not the most attractive pitch to applicants.

The diminished profile of the role makes it likely RBS will recruit from within to fill Hourican's shoes rather than attempt to attract an outsider, sources have said.

HOURICAN FORCE

Irishman Hourican, who joined RBS almost 16 years ago, will leave his slimmed-down investment bank at the end of April. He is getting one year's pay, but giving up close to 4 million pounds in bonuses previously granted that have not yet vested.

Hourican had only hit the headlines once before - in 2012, when he made nearly 5 million pounds from selling shares given to him as part of a 2009 bonus. At the time, it was reported he had said that he would have found any attempt to claw back the bonus as “pretty offensive”.

RBS said on Wednesday it would pay the bulk of its fines from regulators by cutting bonuses and clawing back past awards.

Revelations the bank's traders rigged Libor up until 2010, two years after its bailout and after Hourican had taken over as head of the investment bank, made his position untenable.

Colleagues describe him as a charming but steely character.

“He would be tough, clever, sharp ... like a lot of Irish people he's well able to talk, a very good story teller, he could hold a meeting in terms of presence. There'd be a certain amount of arrogance about him as well, he wouldn't suffer fools,” said one, who declined to be named.

Hourican, 42, took over the investment bank in 2008 from flamboyant former mentor Johnny Cameron, who was known for taking risky investment bets and carried the can for the investment bank's disastrous expansionist policy.

The Hourican name is well known in RBS, with John's two younger brothers both working there. Declan, the middle sibling, is chief finance and administrative officer at RBS's so called “bad bank,” which houses the lender's non-core assets.

The youngest brother, David, is chief financial officer at RBS's APAC International Banking, based in Singapore.

Hourican himself joined RBS in 1997, one year ahead of disgraced former CEO Fred Goodwin, who was stripped of his knighthood last year for his role in the bank's near collapse.

The father of four rose through the wholesale banking side and was appointed chief financial officer of Dutch bank ABN AMRO after its acquisition by RBS. But he left Amsterdam for London to restructure and run the investment bank.

An accountant by training and a keen sailor, Hourican's experience slashing costs, cutting jobs and selling businesses - as well as presiding over a division that still made an operating profit of 1.1 billion pounds in the first half of last year - is likely to stand him in good stead to find a new job.

But that probably won't be in Ireland, where a 500,000 euros ($676,900) cap on bankers' pay might put him off. - Reuters


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