Business Irish

Sunday 17 December 2017

Both pensioners and pensions conspire to ruin Richie's week

Richie Boucher of BoI, whose trading update got very little media attention, despite prompting Goodbody Stockbrokers to reduce earnings estimates for 2015 by 4pc and by 6pc for 2016
Richie Boucher of BoI, whose trading update got very little media attention, despite prompting Goodbody Stockbrokers to reduce earnings estimates for 2015 by 4pc and by 6pc for 2016
Richard Curran

Richard Curran

Bank of Ireland chief executive Richie Boucher didn't exactly have his best week at the office. A lacklustre trading update showed a drop in margins, a reduction in capital and an increase in the bank's enormous pension deficit.

Throw into the mix a massive watering down of a proposal to introduce a minimum €700 cash transaction size in branches, and it was November gloom all round.

Boucher attracted the ire of pensioner groups in particular, who cited everything from confusion to personal safety risks, as reasons to oppose the plan.

When Joe Duffy's RTE Liveline programme is "wall to wall" with it, and commentators are talking about banking's "social contract" with its customers, things are not going well.

The restrictions on cash lodgements and withdrawals were seen as a purely cost-cutting measure aimed at shifting more customers into online or in-branch automated transactions.

Back in 2013, Boucher told the Cork Chamber of Commerce that: "Any psycho can keep on cutting costs. The skill we have had to try and deploy is trying to find the room to invest in our companies. In particular, heavy investment in our business in Ireland, we believe in a branch network".

Particularly hard to swallow over at Bank of Ireland HQ is the fact that Boucher is actually right about that. Bank of Ireland has kept branches open in towns where others have folded up and cleared off. The problem is ensuring you make enough money from those branches. The real question is how much is enough?

Bank of Ireland has invested in cheque lodgement machines inside its branches and even at on-street ATMs which allow you to lodge money 24 hours a day.

As someone who goes into his local small-town Bank of Ireland branch a lot, I am always struck by the number of people queueing for a teller to lodge their cheques. Yet you can just waltz straight up to a machine, lodge the cheque and be gone in 60 seconds.

Many customers don't like the machine option - and annoyingly for Bank of Ireland management, there is that old saying about the customer always being right.

The bank's trading update got very little media attention, despite prompting Goodbody Stockbrokers to reduce earnings estimates for 2015 by 4pc and by 6pc for 2016.

Boucher is getting many of the things within his control right - except this week's cash transaction restriction in branches.

But lower returns on financial assets and quantitative easing at the ECB have impacted on the accounting treatment of the pension deficit, which stood at €1.2bn in April. This in turn is hitting the bank's capital figure.

Also somewhat outside management's control is the impact that mortgage lending caps are having on the number of mortgage approvals in recent months. This could pick up next year, according to Goodbody Stockbrokers, as the short-term effects of the Central Bank rules wane a little.

Of course, Boucher is personally (technically) affected by the pension deficit, given that he is a member of the defined benefit scheme. He and other directors took hits to pension entitlements in 2010 and again in 2013. Boucher waived around €118,000 of his salary last year - but still received a pension fund contribution of €237,000 to go with his €690,000 salary.

For all of the significant progress Boucher has made in just a few years, he may now be hitting a few headwinds.

Wilbur Ross tripled his money by selling out of Bank of Ireland after the share price went from 9c to 27c in just three years. Eighteen months later, it is at just 32c. You would almost think he saw it coming.

Coulson kicks the can down the road - again

Paul Coulson must be chomping at the bit to get at least one part of his Ardagh packaging empire on to the stock market.

He has been waiting since 2011 for the moment to arrive. But he isn't chomping enough to feel the need to let his metals packaging division IPO go at the wrong time.

He has waited long enough, so he is prepared to wait a while longer and decided last week to postpone the IPO of that division.

Coulson has to weigh up his options now but appears to firmly believe that an IPO of the metals business, known as Oressa, is still the way to go. If so, then it is about timing and price. Neither will be fully within his control and will depend on how the markets play out in the coming months.

Ardagh spent $8.7m in fees before aborting an IPO in 2011. After further postponements, Coulson hit on the idea of floating just the metals division with a possible IPO of the glass business sometime after. After all, why hit a payday once, when you can hit it twice?

Big advantages for the metal packaging business include the fact that it isn't exposed to developing markets (out of favour with investors) and it doesn't have short-term debt repayments coming up. This gives Coulson the luxury of some time.

The downside list is a little longer. Oressa is heavily dependent on European markets for revenues, which are not exactly on fire. European revenues in the six months to June 2015 were down 2pc to €794m. However, investment in two new plants in North America helped revenues on that side of the Atlantic to grow by 96pc to €167m.

North American operations can give Coulson a growth story for Oressa. And after seeing overall metals earnings fall in 2013, they have grown in 2014 and early 2015.

He will want to drive margins in Europe and growth in North America while waiting for the next opportunity to float.

Another downside is the fact Ardagh is heavily indebted, with borrowings of around €5bn. And under the terms of the proposed IPO, Ardagh will keep majority ownership of Oressa - with a share structure that gives it many times more voting rights than IPO investors.

This shouldn't directly affect the Oressa investment case, but it isn't necessarily what IPO investors favour these days.

With US interest rates set to rise and continued nervousness about China, markets could remain a little jittery for quite a while. Coulson will have to sit it out for a while before getting Oressa away. Otherwise, he will have to compromise on price.

Don't hold your breath for that one.

AIB finally starts to pay back its €20bn of IOUs

AIB is finally cleared to start paying back some of the €20.8bn poured into the bank by the State during the crisis.

The Exchequer will receive around €1.7bn shortly, and a further €1.6bn next summer. This is part of a capital reorganisation at the bank which will see a further €2.1bn of the State's preference shares convert to ordinary shares.

This is good news for the bank, as it will bolster its fully loaded capital from about 8.3pc to around 11.3pc ahead of any IPO. It's good for the Exchequer, which will finally see some money coming back.

However, the State will forgo any dividend on the €2.1bn of preference shares that will convert to ordinary stock. Given that it already has around 500 billion ordinary AIB shares (yes, that is billion), does it need any more?

The theory is that by bolstering the bank's capital base, it will make the ordinary shares more valuable when it IPOs. But with planned flotations dropping like flies, how soon will that be?

AIB chief executive Bernard Byrne said the capital restructure "positions the Group to repay capital to the State and return to private ownership over time".

He doesn't sound like he is in a hurry.

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