Ulster Bank faces crunch month
Workforce is bracing for the axe to fall as bank's parent company RBS gets ready to publish a review of its global operations
THE future of Ulster Bank is hanging in the balance, particularly for its workforce of almost 6,000 who are bracing themselves for more grim news.
It is less than three weeks to D-Day, when parent company, the Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS), publishes a review of its global operations and its plans for the Irish operation.
But could February 27 be rough for the lender, with more job losses and branch closures looming, or time for RBS to recommit to a country deemed to be on the road to recovery?
The future of Ulster Bank is out of its hands while RBS "does some soul-searching", according to leading academic Professor Ray Kinsella.
But he maintains its existence is vital for customers, businesses and the economy in terms of competition and its international reach after others relinquished their global empires.
"The Irish finance sector at the moment, compared to five to 10 years ago, has been emaciated," he says.
"The kind of clout Ulster Bank brings to the island and brings to banking generally is an important part of the architecture of the economy and the sector."
The former UCD lecturer says RBS is taking a personal hit by moving £9bn (€10.8bn) worth of toxic Irish assets into its newly formed "internal bad bank", declaring its commitment to stay on the island.
"My instinct would be that when they've taken so much pain that they'll hang in there," he says.
"The RBS didn't get the credit it should have got for sticking with Ireland right through the epicentre of the crisis. It had the option of walking away and it didn't, and instead it put €9bn towards it."
But it's not all about numbers. Kinsella believes politics is also at play.
When the British taxpayer became the largest shareholder in RBS with a £45bn (€54bn) government bailout, more than €16bn of it was pumped into keeping Ulster Bank afloat.
"I honestly believe there's a real political issue," Kinsella continued.
"If Ulster were to pull out of Ireland it would send a very negative political signal. It's an all-Ireland bank."
Analysts and union leaders believe RBS has ploughed too much into Ulster Bank to suddenly pull out of the market.
It has already suffered 22 branches closures and 1,600 job losses, but chief executive Jim Brown has been told by RBS boss Ross McEwan to cut more costs amid fears it will post a loss of around €3.3bn in the final three months of 2013.
Emer Lang, an analyst at Davy Stockbrokers, says it is hard to predict the outcome of the review.
"In mid-2013, then outgoing RBS CEO Stephen Hester acknowledged in an interview that other options to retaining Ulster were considered but added that 'there has never been a moment in the last five years when leaving Ireland was the preferred option'," she said.
"Clearly finding a buyer for the bank during the crisis would have been a massive challenge and winding down a bank of its scale would have been – and remains – a daunting and costly task.
"RBS has stressed that it needs to ensure that Ulster has 'a viable and sustainable business model' and in this respect costs are obviously a key focus – for example Ulster Bank is moving its mortgage arrears management function from the Republic of Ireland to Scotland and there is speculation of further job cuts.
"We'll just have to wait and see what they say."
Ireland's once-thriving finance hub has suffered several blows, with institutions battered with the same ferocity as the gale-force winds that have hit the west coast.
Some say the British look down on Ulster Bank as the bold schoolchild that ultimately got the whole class – RBS – into trouble when it loosened the purse strings for developers. Others maintain it was the safe haven and careful lender until it was taken over by RBS, which pushed its boundaries during the boom.
Might Ulster Bank follow Danske, which dropped its business and personal banking customer base, closed branches and cut hundreds of jobs in a bid to focus on corporate and institutional clients?
That announcement was made just a week after ACCBank said it was to hand back its banking licence, with the loss of about 180 jobs.
Ciaran Callaghan, senior credit analyst with Merrion Stockbrokers, is not expecting any surprises from the review.
He believes RBS will be conscious of the Irish recovery and the progress being made in Ulster Bank, and forecasts its core business will return to profitability this year, like AIB and BoI.
"So from an economic rationale, it wouldn't make much sense to pull out of Ireland at this stage in the cycle, especially with asset quality currently stabilising," he said.
"Given the concentrated Irish banking market with the pillar banks (AIB and BoI) commanding a duopoly position, I think there will be a role for Ulster in the future.
"Following the withdrawal and retrenchment of other foreign banks, the pricing power for the incumbents should be strong, which will be conducive for margin expansion and profitability. I think RBS and the UK Treasury will be mindful of this potential."
But mood is still low among staff inside its modern headquarters on the River Liffey's south bank, overlooking the Samuel Beckett Bridge.
At its height, Ulster Bank was one of the biggest mortgage lenders during the boom with about 7,500 staff.
As the bubble burst, so did its workforce. One thousand went in 2010 and another 950 losses were announced in January 2012, with 650 of those gone. Some 110 mortgage centre posts are being outsourced to Edinburgh, it emerged last week.
Fears are now growing that as many as another thousand jobs will be culled later this month once RBS has completed a review of its business.
The company is remaining tight-lipped, but sources stress there is no major exit plan.
"The mortgage arrears staff cuts were on the cards for some time, since the last restructuring, and there was a big union battle over it," one worker said.
"We're not sure where the 1,000 jobs figure has come from.
"The mood is fairly down. There are a lot of worried people. We are all in limbo waiting to see what happens."
IBOA The Finance Union – which represents the majority of workers in Ulster Bank – said that this "guesstimation" was cranking up anxiety levels for people who are already anxious.
But it had also warned members in recent weeks that radical changes could be coming, including compulsory redundancies, outsourcing, pay cuts and branch closures.
"From our experience, recent reviews have been the precursors to further restructuring, redundancies, branch closures and reconfiguration of departments," said the finance union's general secretary, Larry Broderick.
"Apart from job losses resulting from the closure of branches and departments, work has also been transferred out of Ireland.
"Given the uplift that is beginning to take place, a sensible starting point for this review would be to look forward to the future to see how Ulster Bank could position itself to take advantage of this improvement through its presence in various sectors of the economy."