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Coronavirus: UK banks brace for £6.7bn COVID-19 hit

Oscar Williams-Grut
·Senior City Correspondent, Yahoo Finance UK
·3-min read
Barclays CEO Jes Staley participates in the Yahoo Finance All Markets Summit at Union West on Thursday, Oct. 10, 2019, in New York. (Photo by Evan Agostini/Invision/AP)
Barclays CEO Jes Staley participates in the Yahoo Finance All Markets Summit at Union West on Thursday, Oct. 10, 2019, in New York. (Evan Agostini/Invision/AP)

Britain’s biggest banks have set aside over £6bn ($7.4bn) in the last week as they prepare for an expected spike in losses caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

HSBC (HSBA.L), Barclays (BARC.L), Lloyds (LLOY.L), RBS (RBS.L), and Santander (SAN) all announced hefty provisions for expected losses this week, collectively totalling £6.7bn.

HSBC led the pack, setting aside $3bn (£2.4bn) to cover rising losses. Santander UK took the smallest hit, provisioning just £122m for expected losses.

READ MORE: Lloyds Bank profit dives 95% as it sets aside £1.4bn to cover COVID-19

The charges weighed heavily on first quarter earnings and show just how severe banks think the economic fallout from the coronavirus crisis will be.

“Having lived through and been on [JP] Morgan’s operating committee during the 2008/2009 crisis, this is beyond that by some measure,” Barclays chief executive James ‘Jes’ Staley told journalists on an earnings call earlier this week.

Barclays’ economists expect UK GDP to collapse by 50% in the second quarter of 2020 and believe the economy will shrink 8% across the year. Unemployment is forecast to rise to 6.7%. The bank took a credit loss charge of £2.1bn, reflecting the bleak outlook.

READ MORE: HSBC sets aside $3bn as credit losses expected to soar

Lloyds set £1.4bn to cover future losses and based its calculations on the assumption the UK economy will shrink by 5% this year. Unemployment is forecast to spike to 5.9% and house prices predicted to fall by 5%.

“We can’t be sure how long the extraordinary measures that have been put in place will last, or the toll Covid-19 will take on our society and the economy,” RBS chairman Howard Davies told investors during this week’s virtual AGM this week, “But we know the impact is likely to be stark and long-lasting.”

The Royal Bank of Scotland Group Chairman Howard Davies arrives for a meeting of senior financial services leaders with Britain's Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne to talk about the next steps for the sector following the British referendum vote to leave the European Union at 11 Downing Street, in London, Tuesday, July 5, 2016.  British Prime Minister David Cameron announced his resignation on June 24 after Britain voted to leave the European Union in a referendum. (AP Photo/Matt Dunham)
The Royal Bank of Scotland Group Chairman Howard Davies. (AP Photo/Matt Dunham)

RBS didn’t share its assumptions of how it expects the UK economy to perform this year but set aside £802m for credit losses.

While large, the £6.7bn set aside by UK banks so far is nowhere near the $24bn in provisions announced by the four biggest banks in the US.

READ MORE: RBS profit halves as it sets aside £802m to cover COVID-19

“The UK firms may have been helped by the leeway granted by the Prudential Regulatory Authority with regards to the IFRS9 accounting standard, which means the banks do not face an immediate requirement to book hefty losses against loans impacted by the viral outbreak,” said Russ Mould, investment director at stockbroker AJ Bell.

“However, this does beg the question of whether there are further losses coming down the line for the Big Five, despite their rigorous tests and scenario analyses, even if they are mercifully a long way from the run rate needed to match the £57bn in loan and credit impairments booked in 2009.”