The widespread response to Barclays' announcement of £3 billion profits for the first half of the year has been broadly predictable: dismay about suggestions that bonuses might be offered, frustration that many small businesses still have serious difficulties obtaining credit, and a sort of retributive anger that bankers, vilified justifiably as a factor in the current recession, seem to be back on their feet whilst many struggle during these hard times.
Yet Barclays' did not request support for the government, even if Robert Peston correctly points out that they may have benefitted to a degree from various governmental guarantees and safety nets. Instead, as the global downturn was really starting to bite last summer, they raised £4.5 billion in a rights issue from overseas investors, predominantly in Qatar, China and Singapore. Strong, independent banks will be a vital element in the economic recovery.
On the charge of not providing enough cheap credit, the banks are caught between a rock and a hard place in being urged by government to keep greater capital reserves and be more cautious with lending, whilst also being told to ensure that businesses can get the funding they need to ride out the recession. Furthermore, the high cost of lending is determined by the interest rate of wholesale lending between financial institutions, rather than merely the theoretical Bank of England base rate. Significantly, it is not retail banking from which Barclays is predominantly getting its current profits: profit from this fell 61% to £268m, whilst the amount of written off credit card borrowing soared 92% to £915m. Instead, it is profits at its investment banking division, Barclays Capital, that roughly doubled to £1.05 billion that was a key factor in their positive figures, helped by a gaining former customers of Lehman Brothers.
However, most importantly, we should be glad that a bank is making a profit. Firstly, it provides another possible indication that the recession may have bottomed out, gives investors greater confidence in financial markets and shows other banks that profitability is possible with the right strategy even in the current situation. Secondly, it is vital for Britain to have large multinationals making large profits, creating employment and wealth and contributing to the economy. The more companies get in profit sooner, the better off we will all be: Barclays' results should be greeted with relief more than cynicism or resentment.
It has become politically impossible for Barclays' to return to the system of bonuses for short-term performance that was de rigeur a couple of years ago, as Chief Executive John Varley put it "The year is not over - there are five months to go. We will make our decisions about variable compensation at the end of the year. When we do so..... we will behave responsibly." Providing the bonus system is designed to moderately reward cautious, long term growth rather than reckless risk taking, we should all be happy that a degree of prosperity is returning to a corner of the services sector, still Britain's economic powerhouse. Incentivising the creation of wealth, providing it is done responsibly, is exactly what we need.