RBS reports first profit in 10 years

Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS.L) has returned to profit for the first time in a decade as it continues its recovery. Chief executive Ross McEwan told the BBC it was “a symbolic moment.” The bank, which is majority-owned by the taxpayer, made an annual profit of £752m compared with a £6.95bn loss the year before. RBS still faces a potentially massive fine from the US Department of Justice over the sale of financial products linked to risky mortgages. The bank had expected to settle the case this year.

British Gas owner Centrica to cut 4,000 jobs after ‘weak’ year

Centrica, which owns British Gas, is cutting 4,000 jobs as it continues to lose customers. The energy supplier, which has operations in North America and Ireland as well as its main UK market, said group profits fell 17% to £1.25bn. Chief executive Iain Conn said the firm had a “weak” second half of 2017, and it was not helped by political and regulatory intervention in the UK. British Gas shed 9% of its UK domestic customers in 2017.

Forward Diary: 26th February – 2nd March 2018

Company and economic announcements planned for the week commencing 26th February 2018

Men still earn more than women at most firms

The majority of small and medium-sized companies are still paying male employees more than their female colleagues. Almost three in four firms pay higher wages collectively to men, according to the latest government figures. Just 15% of businesses with more than 250 employees have a higher wage bill for women. The remaining 11% claim there is no difference between the salaries paid to men and women. The BBC analysis shows that the average gender pay gap across all medium and large-sized firms is now 8.2%. That means men typically earn 8.2% more an hour than women. Among those with the largest gender pay gap are airlines such as Tui and Easyjet, and banks including Virgin Money, the Clydesdale and TSB.

William Hill fined £6.2m for lax controls

Betting firm William Hill (WMH.L) has been hit with a £6.2m penalty package for breaching anti-money laundering and social responsibility regulations. The Gambling Commission said the company did not do enough to ensure prevention measures were effective. As a result 10 customers were able to deposit money linked to criminal offences and William Hill gained £1.2m. The company was found to have not done enough to determine the source of the money or if they were problem gamblers. In a statement, the Gambling Commission said William Hill’s senior management “failed to mitigate risks and have sufficient numbers of staff to ensure their anti money laundering and social responsibility processes were effective”. A Gambling Commission investigation covered the period between November 2014 and August 2016. William Hill will pay more than £5m for breaching the regulations and “divest themselves of the £1.2m they earned from transactions with the 10 customers”, the Commission said. The company now has to appoint external auditors to review the effectiveness and implementation of its anti-money laundering and social responsibility policies and procedures. Neil McArthur, executive director at the Gambling Commission, said: “This was a systemic failing at William Hill which went on for nearly two years and today’s penalty package – which could exceed £6.2m – reflects the seriousness of the breaches.” In a statement, William Hill chief executive Philip Bowcock said: “William Hill has fully co-operated with the Commission throughout this process, introducing new and improved policies and increased levels of resourcing. “We have also committed to an independent process review and will work to implement any recommendations that emerge from that review. “We are fully committed to operating a sustainable business that properly identifies risk and better protects customers. “We will continue to assist the Commission and work with other operators to improve practices in the areas identified.”

Sir Philip Green faces more pension questions from Frank Field

MPs are to scrutinise pension schemes at the retail empire of Topshop boss Sir Philip Green. Frank Field, chairman of the Work and Pensions Committee, says the move follows reports Sir Philip is in talks to sell all or part of his business. The Sunday Times claimed that the billionaire had held talks with Chinese textiles giant Shandong Ruyi. Mr Field, who clashed with Sir Philip over BHS’s collapse, told the BBC Sir Philip may have questions to answer. Sir Philip’s Arcadia group, whose brands also include Burton, Miss Selfridge, Dorothy Perkins and Wallis, has 2,800 stores across the world. However, his flagship brand, Topshop, has struggled against competition from the rise of online rivals such as Boohoo and Asos. According to latest figures, profits at Taveta, Arcadia’s holding company, fell 79% in 2016. Last year, Sir Philip revamped management in a bid to revive the brands. Sir Philip, aged 65, could not be reached for comment and the Sunday Times’ report has not been confirmed. However, Mr Field said his committee would now “look at the state of Sir Philip Green’s pensions schemes and whether he can sell to whomever he wants without having some very important questions or putting in some money into the whole Arcadia pension pot”. The move risks re-opening a long-running feud between Sir Philip and the Labour MP, whose Commons committee last year investigated the sale and subsequent collapse of BHS. The failed High Street chain was left with a huge pension deficit, although Sir Philip later agreed a £363m cash settlement with the Pensions Regulator to plug the gap. Mr Field has criticised Sir Philip’s actions, and last August the businessman sent a legal warning to the MP. Shandong Ruyi has been expanding in Europe. It has bought controlling stakes in the Swiss luxury leather goods company Bally and London-listed fashion manufacturer Bagir. The Chinese company bought Acquascutum last year for £95m.

Mid-earners ‘locked out of buying a home’

The extent to which young people are locked out of the British housing market has been revealed in new figures from economists. The biggest decline in home ownership in the last 20 years has been among middle-income 25 to 34-year-olds, the Institute for Fiscal Studies said. In 1995-96, 65% of this group owned a home, but just 27% do in 2015-16, with the biggest drop in south-east England.Middle earners are defined as having take-home pay of £22,200 to £30,600. This can be either as an individual or as a couple. A third of them are university graduates, while 30% left school at 16. Three-quarters of them live with a partner, and around 60% have children. The proportion of these middle earners owning a home (27%) has moved closer to the likelihood of those with a low income (8%) than those on a high income (64%).

Forward Diary: 19th – 23rd February 2018

Company and economic announcements planned for the week commencing 19th February 2018

Steel pensions scheme victim to ‘major mis-selling scandal’

British Steel pension scheme members were targeted by “vulture” financial advisers after Tata was allowed to offload its retirement fund, MPs say. In 2017 the Indian firm announced a restructuring of the £14bn fund to keep its UK loss-making operations afloat. But the government, Tata and regulators failed to protect 124,000 members from a “major mis-selling scandal”, the Work and Pensions Select Committee said. The UK government has yet to issue its response to the “neglect” claim. The Pensions Regulator said it would continue to work to protect savers. The report from the Work and Pensions Select Committee was looking at the closure of the British Steel Pension Scheme (BSPS). Regulators had accepted that Tata Steel UK would be insolvent if it continued to sponsor the scheme.

Japan GDP slows to 0.5% in final quarter of 2017

Japan’s economic growth slowed in the last three months of 2017 and missed expectations, preliminary official figures show. The world’s third-largest economy expanded at an annualised rate of 0.5% in the quarter, against analyst forecasts of 0.9%. But it is still the country’s eighth consecutive quarter of growth – the longest streak since the late 1980s. The GDP figures compare with annualised growth of 2.2% in the previous quarter. Annualised growth rates represent a value of growth if the quarter-on-previous quarter rate of change were maintained for a full year.

Amazon plans hundreds of layoffs

Amazon is cutting hundreds of positions at its headquarters and global operations, a move that comes after several years of significant growth. The cuts were first reported by the Seattle Times, which said the actions are focused on streamlining the firm’s consumer retail business. Amazon said it is working to offer affected staff new roles. It said it expects “small reductions in a couple of places and aggressive hiring in many others.” Amazon, which lists thousands of job openings on its website, has expanded rapidly in recent years, both through skyrocketing sales and acquisitions of companies such as grocer Whole Foods. The company reported about $3bn in profit on nearly $178bn in sales last year. It counted more than 560,000 full and part-time workers worldwide at the end of December, an expansion of more than 65% from the previous year. The firm’s website shows many of the new positions report to Amazon Web Services, the firm’s profitable cloud computing division. The firm is also building up units focused on the company’s Alexa robot and other devices. Previous consolidations at the company have led to layoffs in some areas. Last year, Amazon closed Diapers.com and other sites operated by Quidsi, which it announced a deal to acquire in 2010 for about $500m. That led to more than 260 layoffs in New Jersey.

Aldi tops supermarket satisfaction survey

Aldi has been rated the UK’s best supermarket, nudging previously top-ranked Waitrose down to fourth place. Customers criticised Aldi stores for being “untidy” and for a lack of staff availability, but rated them highly for offering value for money, according to consumer group Which?. Marks and Spencer was second, winning marks for store appearance and product quality. Lidl ranked third. The large supermarkets fared worst, with Sainsbury’s ranked last of nine. The survey, conducted last October, asked customers to rate their supermarket shopping experiences in the past six months. The chains are scored on customer satisfaction and whether they would recommend the store to a friend. Waitrose, Tesco, Morrisons and Sainsbury’s lost marks over value-for-money compared to the discount chains. Which? said respondents praised the ease of finding items on shelves at Aldi. But both Lidl and Aldi scored poorly for queuing time, staff availability and for the range of products on offer. But they were marked up for the quality of their fresh and own-label products.

Asia stock markets drop sharply after US falls

Major Asian markets suffered sharp losses on Friday, following another day of steep falls on Wall Street. In a volatile week for global investors, Japan’s Nikkei 225 index slid 2.8%, while China’s Shanghai Composite slumped by 4.1%. Earlier, the Dow Jones Industrial Average fell by more than 1,000 points for the second time this week. Sell-offs around the world have been pinned partly on concerns over higher interest rates. Elsewhere in Asia on Friday, Hong Kong’s Hang Seng pulled back 3.7%, while South Korea’s Kospi index traded down 1.6% and Australia’s S&P/ASX 200 eased 0.8%. Those losses came as little surprise, with moves in major US markets providing the cue for global investors.

Forward Diary: 12th – 16th February 2018

Company and economic announcements planned for the week commencing 12th February 2018

Tesla reports record loss but says outlook is positive

The firm’s future hangs on the Model 3 sedan, but it has so far struggled with production bottlenecks. Tesla reported a loss of $675.4m (£487m) in three months to 31 December, compared with $121.3m a year earlier. But it said revenues rose to $3.29bn, up from $2.28bn, and that it was addressing Model 3 production issues. “At some point in 2018, we expect to begin generating positive quarterly operating income on a sustained basis,” Tesla, which is yet to make a profit, said on Wednesday. Despite ongoing production bottlenecks, the electric car maker said it would continue to target Model 3 production rates of 2,500 by the end of the first quarter this year, and 5,000 by the end of the second quarter.

Tesco faces record £4bn equal pay claim

Tesco is facing Britain’s largest ever equal pay claim and a possible bill running to £4bn. Thousands of women who work in Tesco stores could receive back pay totalling £20,000 if the legal challenge demanding parity with men who work in the company’s warehouses is successful. Lawyers say hourly-paid female store staff earn less than men even though the value of the work is comparable. Tesco said it worked hard to ensure all staff were paid “fairly and equally”.

Asian markets join global stock plunge

Asian markets plunged on Tuesday as investors dumped stocks following heavy falls in the US. Japan’s Nikkei 225 index saw its biggest one-day point drop since 1990. It ended down 4.7% at 21,610.24. It comes after the Dow Jones Industrial Average suffered its biggest loss in more than six years on Monday. The falls follow some good years for investors. In 2017 the Dow was up 25%, helped by a resurgent economy and strong corporate profits. But the sell-off began last week after a solid US jobs report fuelled expectations that the Federal Reserve will raise interest rates faster than expected. “Economic news from the US has been stronger than anticipated,” said David Kuo, chief executive of financial services advisory Motley Fool. “So, perversely, the market correction has been caused by positive economic news.” Markets in Asia typically follow the lead from the US. Elsewhere in the region, Hong Kong’s Hang Seng dropped 4.5% and South Korea’s Kospi index gave up 2.6%. Australia’s benchmark S&P/ASX 200 lost 3.2%. US stock futures were pointing to more sharp falls when markets open on Tuesday.

Lloyds Bank bans Bitcoin purchases on its credit cards

Lloyds Banking Group has banned its customers from buying Bitcoin on their credit cards following a sharp fall in the value of the digital currency. The ban, starting on Monday, applies to Lloyds Bank, Bank of Scotland, Halifax and MBNA customers. It will not apply to debit cards, only to the banking group’s eight million credit card customers. Lloyds fears people are buying Bitcoin to make a profit if its value rises but face debts if it falls. It is concerned it could end up footing the bill for unpaid debts should the price continue to fall. Explaining the ban, a Lloyds spokeswoman said: “We continually review our products and procedures and this is part of that.” Bitcoin ended last week down 30% at $8,291.87 – its worst week since April 2013 and far below the $19,000 it reached last November. However, the cryptocurrency is still ahead of the $1,000 it was trading at this time last year. Police have warned that digital currencies remain popular among criminals as they can use them to evade traditional money laundering checks and other regulations. Prime Minister Theresa May recently said that action against digital currencies may be required “precisely because of the way they are used, particularly by criminals”. She told Bloomberg: “In areas like cryptocurrencies, like Bitcoin, we should be looking at these very seriously.” The Treasury said that it intends to update regulation to bring virtual currency platforms into anti-money laundering and counter-terrorist financing regulation. Facebook recently announced it would block any advertising that promotes cryptocurrency products and services.

Apple sells fewer phones but profits rise

Apple sold slightly fewer iPhones in the final three months of 2017 than it did the year before, but higher prices compensated for the dip. The firm reported a record $20bn (£14bn) in quarterly profits, driven by strong growth in Japan and Europe. The results were the first official glimpse of sales figures for Apple’s expensive iPhone X. Chief executive Tim Cook said demand for the product, which starts at about $1,000, had surpassed expectations. Quarterly sales at the firm climbed by 13% year-on-year to a record $88.3bn. After an initial fall, Apple shares climbed more than 3% in after-hours trade. Apple released the iPhone X in November, coinciding with the 10th anniversary of the device and while the overall number of iPhones sold in the period slipped by 1% year-on-year to 77.3 million, the iPhone X had been the top-selling Apple handset every week since its launch, Mr Cook said. However the tech giant also issued a weaker-than-expected sales forecast for coming months, which appears to reinforce investor concerns that demand for Apple products may be dimming.

Forward Diary: 5th – 9th February 2018

Company and economic announcements planned for the week commencing 5th February 2018

Betting firms to stop ‘unfair’ promotions

Betting firms Ladbrokes, William Hill, and PT Entertainment have agreed to change online games promotions after Pressure from the regulator. The Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) said punters must be able to cash out when they want, and not have to play more to release winnings. It said that “gambling firms must now stop unfair online promotions that trap players’ money”. The changes will apply to all promotions. Players will not be required to play multiple times before they can withdraw their own money, gambling firms must ensure that any restrictions on gameplay are made clear to players, and cannot rely on vague terms to take players’ money. Gambling firms must not make players take part in publicity to collect winnings”.

Drop in consumer demand hits UK car manufacturing

Car manufacturing in the UK fell last year for the first time since 2009. According to new figures from the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT), 1.67 million cars left UK factories in 2017, a decline of 3% compared with the year before. The SMMT says lower demand from UK consumers was the main reason for the fall, although exports also dipped. New investment in the UK motor industry shrank as well, falling to £1.1bn last year, compared with £1.66bn in 2016. Despite the decline last year, manufacturing in the UK remains high by historical standards, having risen steadily in the aftermath of the financial crisis. The number of cars that rolled off the production lines in 2017 was still the second highest since the turn of the century. But the SMMT remains concerned about the effects of falling business and consumer confidence, as well as what it calls confusion over the government’s policy on diesel. Output for the domestic market fell by 9.8%, reflecting a decline in new car sales, which gathered pace towards the end of the year. Overseas demand continued to dominate production, with almost eight in every 10 cars built being sent abroad, more than half of them to the rest of the European Union.

Any Brexit deal will hit UK economy – government paper

The UK economy will grow more slowly outside the European Union, no matter what deal is struck with Brussels, a leaked government document suggests. The BuzzFeed News website reports the Whitehall analysis found growth over the next 15 years could be up to 8% lower than if the UK stayed in the EU. The document is said to look at the likely impact of different scenarios. Government sources say the UK will not be worse off, and its preferred bespoke trade deal option was not analysed. Meanwhile, the international trade secretary Liam Fox has said some fellow Leave campaigners must now accept that they will not achieve their vision of Brexit. Speaking to the Sun newspaper, Mr Fox said: “I know there are always disappointed individuals but they’re going to have to live with disappointment.” Chancellor Philip Hammond last week suggested the UK and EU economies could only move “very modestly” apart after Brexit. His remarks sparked outrage from backers of Leave and reports that the prime minister was struggling to keep her party together.

Carillion tried to ‘wriggle out’ of pension contributions

Carillion “wriggled out” of payments into its company pension schemes as its troubles grew, while it carried on paying shareholder dividends and bosses’ bonuses, say MPs. The Work and Pensions select committee is questioning the way pension investments were managed at the collapsed outsourcing giant. The schemes overall are in deficit. But last year contributions to the pension funds were deferred until 2019, to help shore up the firm’s finances. The committee has published a letter from Robin Ellison, chairman of trustees of Carillion’s DB Pension Scheme, giving an account of the last few years and suggesting they have been left with a funding shortfall of around £990m. The letter shows that pension trustees were “kept in the dark” about the state of Carillion’s finances until late last year, the committee argues, and that dividends and bonuses were paid out at the expense of pension fund contributions. The select committee’s chair, Frank Field said: “It’s clear that Carillion has been trying to wriggle out of its obligations to its pensioners for the last 10 years.” Mr Ellison will appear in person to answer questions from committee members later this week as pressure grows on those involved to explain why the pension funds’ shortfall was allowed to widen sharply as the company’s difficulties worsened.

Walmart signs Japan online grocery deal with Rakuten

Customers will place orders through Rakuten, which will then be fulfilled by the joint venture. The operation – to launch later this year – will replace Walmart’s existing online grocery delivery service in Japan. As part of the deal, Rakuten subsidiary Kobo will sell e-books, audiobooks and e-readers through US Walmart stores. The launch of the new e-commerce business is the US firm’s latest attempt to crack a competitive overseas market, by teaming up with a popular local partner. In 2016, it applied a similar strategy in China, selling its own website to the country’s second largest online retailer JD.com in exchange for a 5% stake in the company.

Forward Diary: 29th January – 2nd February 2018

Company and economic announcements planned for the week commencing 29th January 2018

JP Morgan in new warning on UK job cuts

Jamie Dimon said the US bank had not needed to make drastic cuts on day one after the EU referendum. But he revised his long-term estimate of job losses upwards if Brexit talks failed to produce an outcome close to the current arrangements. Mr Dimon added that such a scenario would harm London as a financial hub. The boss of the US’s most valuable bank had warned in the run-up to the referendum that 4,000 jobs could go if the UK voted to leave the EU. Since then, JP Morgan has revised that estimate down to between 500 and 1,000 jobs, leading many to dismiss his warnings as part of “Project Fear”. In an interview with the BBC at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Mr Dimon acknowledged that on closer analysis, it turned out the bank did not need to make such drastic moves on day one of Brexit.

Trump’s choice Jerome Powell approved as Federal Reserve head

Donald Trump’s choice for the next head of the US central bank – the world’s most powerful economics job – has been approved by US senators. Jerome Powell, a multi-millionaire, was backed in a 84-13 vote as chair of the Federal Reserve with support from Republicans and many Democrats. Mr Powell, who was named as Mr Trump’s nominee in November, is a Republican who is seen to back low interest rates. Janet Yellen, the current Fed chair, will see her term expire in February. She was appointed by President Obama in 2014 and has been the first woman to hold the position. The appointment marks the end of a decades-long tradition that has seen presidents stick with the Federal Reserve chair who was in charge when they took office. Mr Powell has served on the Fed’s board since 2012, and is expected to take over when Ms Yellen leaves her post on 3 February. Among the candidates President Trump was considering, Mr Powell, a 64-year-old lawyer, was seen as a safe choice who would provide continuity for existing US monetary policy, and not rattle markets. He has been supportive of gradual interest rate rises and of the consensus that the Fed should slowly decrease the asset holdings it gathered as part of its efforts to battle the financial crisis.

South Korea bans anonymous cryptocurrency trades

South Korea is banning the use of anonymous bank accounts to make cryptocurrency transactions. The move is aimed at stopping virtual currencies being used for crimes such as money laundering. The regulations will bring the country closer into line with financial rules in other markets. South Korea is believed to be the world’s third-biggest market for trades in Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies, behind Japan and the US. And its importance in the world of digital currency has meant that decisions made in Seoul can result in large, sudden price swings. The new policy, which had been discussed for some time, will kick in on 30 January. Holders of anonymous cryptocurrency wallets must now link them to bank accounts in their own name, and have their identities confirmed. The requirements are similar to the Know Your Customer anti-crime regulations in the US. Separately, underage investors and foreigners will also be banned from opening cryptocurrency accounts in South Korea. And even stricter measures may be introduced later, with officials earlier this month saying a ban on cryptocurrency trading activities was one step being considered. On Monday, Yonhap reported that the country’s cryptocurrency exchanges would be hit with hefty tax bills in a separate attempt to reign in the sector. Trading is popular among the country’s younger population and demand has seen a 30% premium put on some virtual trades compared to other countries. However, volatility around prices together with the lack of regulation surrounding cryptocurrency trading has led to ongoing concerns among South Korean officials that investors are leaving themselves open to potentially huge losses.

US shutdown: Senators trade blame ahead of Monday vote

US senators are struggling to agree on a bill to fund the government, which is in its second day of shutdown. A Senate session session adjourned late on Sunday and a vote has been postponed to midday (05:30 GMT) on Monday. Democratic and Republican senators have so far traded blame for the shutdown. Democrats want President Trump to negotiate over immigration as part of a budget deal, but Republicans say no deal is possible while federal government services are closed. Mr Trump has called for a simple majority vote to end the impasse. Under Senate rules, the bill needs 60 votes in the 100-member chamber to overcome blocking tactics by opponents. The Republicans currently have 51 senators and would need some Democratic support to pass a budget. But Mr Trump said the “nuclear option” of a simple-majority vote was necessary. The initial vote on a bill to fund the government until 8 February had been scheduled for 01:00 on Monday (06:00 GMT). But it was postponed as Sunday’s session ended. On Monday the closure of many federal services will be felt around the country and hundreds of thousands of federal staff face unpaid leave. The last government shutdown was in 2013, and lasted for 16 days.