Arriving with baggage of his own making, Ross McEwan, NAB’s pick as its next chief executive, faces a complicated return to Australian banking.
During his 4.5 years as CEO at Royal Bank of Scotland, McEwan’s handling of the bank’s recent legacy around “constructive defaults” may dog the new bank boss.
The origins of this drama precede McEwan’s appointment as RBS CEO in October 2013, but its aggravating aftermath is a defining feature of the New Zealander’s legacy at the helm of the UK’s largest bank.
In mid 2018, the UK's Financial Conduct Authority published an assessment of the mistreatment of small and medium-sized customers within RBS’s Global Restructuring Group.
Promontory Group conducted an “independent review” for the FCA and this “found no evidence that RBS artificially distressed and transferred otherwise viable SME businesses to GRG to profit from their restructuring or insolvency,” the FCA said.
“It did, however, identify that many aspects of GRG’s culture, governance and practices were deficient and that in some areas the inappropriate treatment of customers was widespread and systematic.”
RBS acknowledged that it could have done better for SME customers in GRG in some areas and has apologised.
The FCA made clear some response against the bank was warranted in principle but it could not act.
“The fact that GRG was largely outside the jurisdiction of the FCA is important … we do not
have the power to take disciplinary action, such as imposing financial penalties on RBS or individuals.”
Ian Fraser, author of the recently updated “Shredded: Inside RBS The Bank that Broke Britain” summarised (in a synopsis for Scottish Review Of Books) the state of play at RBS this way:
“Having been watching the state-rescued institution for years, and McEwan’s struggle to ‘normalise’ it since he took over the reins from Yorkshire-born investment banker Stephen Hester in October 2013, I can safely say he leaves a mixed legacy.
“In financial terms, the banking group – which also owns NatWest, Coutts, and Ulster Bank – is back in the black, paying shareholders a small dividend and hinting it might carry out share buybacks. It has a much higher capital ratio, meaning it is safer and less likely to blow up than at the time of its 2008 collapse.
“After becoming the world’s most rapidly shrinking bank during McEwan’s time at the helm it is far, far smaller than in the heyday of Fred Goodwin, with a balance sheet that has shrunk from £2.4 trillion in 2008 to £694 billion today.
“More negative aspects of his reign include that 40,000 Royal Bank of Scotland employees have lost their jobs, bringing total staff numbers down to about 67,000 of whom some 14,000 (20 per cent) are now on modest wages in India. McEwan has axed more than 1,100 UK branches since taking the helm, and the taxpayers remaining stake in the bank is expected by the Office for Budget Responsibility be sold at a loss of £31 billion, after its share price plunged by 29 per cent during McEwan’s time in charge.
“Some of these things are considered a betrayal of the taxpayers who bailed it out.
“Culturally and behaviourally, the turnaround of RBS is far from complete. That much became more evident with McEwan’s pugnacious, aggressive and obfuscatory handling of the global restructuring group scandal.
“On his watch senior executives at the bank, including him, took to calling the tens of thousands of UK business customers who complained that their firms had been pillaged, plundered and asset stripped by the infamous GRG, ‘chancers’ who were ‘badmouthing’ the bank. That was not a good look for McEwan.”
An equally poor look for NAB’s new CEO is a record of misleading parliament.
The House of Commons Treasury Select Committee accused McEwan of this offence in September 2018, and there were calls for his resignation.
McEwan, for his part, insisted he had not misled the committee, saying he had misunderstood the MP’s question and the context of the question. McEwan later told Bloomberg TV that that autumn day had been the worst in his five years at RBS.