RBS chief defends its policy on lending
The boss of Ulster Bank parent Royal Bank of Scotland has defended its lending record and insisted the bank was "open for business".
Stephen Hester, speaking to the annual British Chambers of Commerce (BCC) conference in London, said RBS does "make mistakes" with lending but added the bank cannot force customers to borrow when many are choosing to pay off debts.
RBS, which is 83% state-owned after receiving a £45.5bn bailout at the height of the financial crisis, said it handed out £93.5bn of new lending to UK businesses in 2011, up 22% on the previous year.
The bank and Mr Hester have fallen under intense scrutiny in recent months as it cuts thousands of jobs and paid out nearly £1bn in bonuses to its staff.
Around 350 job cuts out of 950 Ireland-wide will be targeted at the bank's 2,182 employees in Northern Ireland.
Mr Hester, who waived his £963,000 all-shares bonus amid a fierce row over bankers' pay, said he wanted the bank out of the headlines and to be "known for being a really good ordinary bank".
He said he was "confident" about RBS and the UK recovery.
He added: "We won't get there by complaining or feeling sorry for ourselves. Both in RBS and for the UK we need to get fit and to get out there and do more business with customers old and new."
Looking at levels of lending, Mr Hester said: "We want to lend more. We have the balance sheet, funding and capital to lend, and indeed the future success of RBS requires that we do lend more."
Mr Hester said the bank approves nine out of 10 credit applications and helps 2,000 new businesses start up every week, and the average interest rate for new small and medium-sized enterprises (SME) lending for RBS was 2.9% last year.
He said the bank does not offer rates that impede demand for credit.
"It's not that banks are profiteering - profits at all banks remain below target," Mr Hester said.
The chief executive said the bank had sent out 500 of its most experienced bank managers to consult businesses, and last year it helped more than 4,000 SMEs return to health and restructured around 700 larger UK businesses.
The average interest rate for new small and medium-sized enterprises lending