Barclays Can’t Make Up its Mind: Will it Cost You?

Barclays (NYSE: BCS  ) has been in the news an awful lot lately. Between the ongoing debate about the bank's increased bonus pool, the expectation of massive job cuts, and of course a pensive wait for the details about the new "bad bank" for unwanted assets, there's much going on.

The recent announcement that the bank's American CEO, Skip McGee, will be leaving has also caused some furor. McGee became part of Barclays when the firm bought part of Lehman Brothers' former operations, and he has been a highly visible figurehead for the Lehman legacy ever since. 

But what concerns me most isn't the loss of McGee or even all the other news. Rather, it's the lack of coherence at the bank itself about what it intends to do going forward. An absence of strategic clarity is a major problem for any business, but it could be particularly damaging to a business as embroiled in troubles as Barclays. 

Where have all the investment bankers gone? 
The commotion surrounding compensation at the investment bank illustrates the problem most clearly.

On the one hand, Barclays CEO Antony Jenkins defended the 10% inflation in the bank's bonus pool as a way to prevent a "death spiral" of defections from the investment bank, staffed as it is by a number of Lehman alumni and competing with all the other major investment banks. Unfortunately, his announcement was not met with gratitude by shareholders; a glaring 33% drop in pre-tax profits last year made the increase in bonuses look somewhat ridiculous.

The trouble does not lie with the decision itself (though another former investment banker, Robert Pickering, provides a lovely critique of the "death spiral" hypothesis), but rather with the lack of clarity. When Jenkins started in 2012, he asserted a desire to eliminate "excess," began a rickety process of cultural change, and stated his intentions to refocus on Barclays former core: retail banking. More recently, news about the firm's "bad bank" plan hints that large swaths of the firm's investment banking unit will be eliminated, and job cuts of up to 30% of the investment banking staff appear to be imminent.

Considering the desire to promote cultural change and reduce the size and scope of the investment bank itself, why the sudden concern about compensation?

A lack of clarity -- or fortitude 
It appears to me that the strategy shift has prompted an "exodus of talent," as John Sunderland, chairman of the bank's remuneration committee, described it. In response, management has panicked.

The exodus is fine: cultural and strategic shifts can and do cause personnel changes, and that should be tolerated -- especially if the people leaving don't fit in with a new, and presumably healthier, culture. What concerns me is the apparent lack of fortitude in seeing things through in the face of blowback. Shouldn't the executive team should be more focused on executing their strategy of downsizing and streamlining operations than trying to woo people who may be leaving soon anyway? 

The about-face makes it look like the bank's leadership is either unclear about their intentions or lacking in the strength to make them a reality. Either way, this is a major problem both for the bank and for its shareholders. 

Is there a bright side? 
At the same time, I do see some long-term potential here. If Jenkins can rise to the challenge of shutting down those parts of the business that aren't working and stick to his guns in executing a well-defined strategy, I think the bank has a opportunity to reinvent itself around its (previously) core retail business as a more nimble and focused institution. I've long been skeptical of diversification for large banks, so a bank with a clear strategic vision would be a welcome sight. 

Of course, such a resolution is far from certain at this point. Jenkins's performance to date hasn't exactly been awe-inspiring, so I remain unconvinced that Barclays is entering a bold new era. However, whatever happens over the coming weeks, the world will be watching the story with interest.

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