Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 31 August 2014

Banks are hoping slow and steady will win contest in the long term

Bleary eyed and number weary is no way to start the working day; but after a morning of bank results there is little option.

Not that there was much surprise in Ulster Bank's results yesterday - nor in those of its peers around Belfast's Donegall Square in the preceding couple of weeks - but as the reporting season comes to an end, it's worth having a look at where we stand.

Actually, you probably don't need me to tell you that the banks are doing ok on a day-to-day basis, taking deposits and lending where they see fit, but are being dragged below the waterline by the concrete boots made up of property loans made during the boom years.

What you really need to know is how they're going to get rid of those boots and float back up to the surface again. You might be surprised to learn that the answer is pretty simple: all that needs to happen is a recovery in the property market.

If house prices got back to where they were in 2007 then all those impairment charges would disappear and the economy would no doubt find itself in rude health again.

Of course, the chances of that happening by the next round of full-year bank reports are slim, to say the least.

In the meantime, the banks are being realistic and writing off potential bad debt as just that. Obviously that's a prudent move given the scrutiny they've come under - particularly the Government-owned banks - and it's one which will no doubt stand them in good stead.

One worry which won't go away relates to the cost of servicing existing loans in the future - ones which maybe fall on the cusp of turning sour.

While borrowers may be able to pay back loans at current historical low interest rates, what happens when the Bank of England ramps up rates? Repayments will obviously get more difficult to fund and you can't help thinking that defaults will be a more common occurrence.

On the upside, if rates do start to rise then at least it will mean the economy has picked up pace. Every cloud and all that. In essence the future prosperity of the banks is tied to the future prosperity of you and me so there's every incentive for them to lend.

Obviously recent experience combined with the debt crisis in Europe is keeping their hand on the purse strings but that will ease as things improve.

And improve they will, once those concrete boots come off.

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