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A glimmer of hope as mortgage approvals and business lending on rise

By Clare Weir

Ulster Bank has reported an operating profit of almost £400m over the past three months, along with big increases in mortgage approval and business lending increases - a further sign that the private sector is helping to drive our economy back into the black.

While Govenment budget cuts are starting to bite, yesterday Ulster Bank said it has lent almost £1bn to businesses this year so far and has approved nine out of 10 requests for mortgages as it continues to bounce back after a series of costly setbacks.

That followed third quarter results from Danske Bank which showed an operating profit of £81m.

The number of mortgages approved this year also climbed by 48% despite Danske Bank only having a 6% share of the local mortgage market, while chief executive Gerry Mallon said that this year had been the best on record in terms of winning new business customers.

Nigel Smyth, director of the CBI in Northern Ireland, said that while there was still a degree of caution, the recovery was well underway.

"There has been an improvement in access to finance but the banks are also now facing competition from seed funding and venture capital investors," he said.

"We are seeing a lot of optimism and confidence and while clearly the public sector has faced difficulty and we are going to see a cut in public expenditure which will hurt some organisations, we are doing a lot of work with medium-sized companies and there are a lot of exciting things going on out there in the tech, food and engineering sectors."

He added: "It is good to see the banks making money as you need to have a healthy banking sector for a healthy economy and none of us want to go back to the bad times."

Announcing almost £400m of profits from July to September, Ulster Bank chief executive Jim Brown said that the bank continued to invest in its IT systems after a massive computer failure in 2012 left customers unable to access their money.

Following an extensive review, Ulster Bank parent Royal Bank of Scotland said it would retain control of Ulster Bank.

At one stage it had been feared that the business in the Republic of Ireland could be sold off.

The operating profit of £394m in the third quarter of 2014 is a massive increase from a £58m profit from April to June. Mr Brown said that the performance was heavily influenced by an improving property market.

"We are in good shape and we are pleased that RBS has recognised that Ulster Bank is core to the group," he said.

"We are keeping tight control of expenses but at the same time putting in place support for mortgage and small business customers.

"We aimed to deliver £1bn funding for businesses this year and we have already provided almost £850m to the end of the third quarter. We have seen a 60% rise in new business lending since the same period last year."

Background

Ulster Bank has recorded a healthy operating profit following years of turbulent trading. An IT glitch in 2012 meant thousands of customers were unable to access their accounts, resulting in millions of pounds being paid out in compensation. Ulster Bank is also planning to sell off loan portfolios worth billions to reduce exposure to the property market.

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