Royal Bank of Scotland seeks firm financial footing

Scottish bank that took over Mellon branches tries to recover from recession

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Royal Bank of Scotland burst on the scene here in 2001 when its U.S.-based banking unit, Citizens Financial Group of Rhode Island, stunned many Pittsburghers by taking over the branch banking operations of storied Mellon Bank.

Since then, things haven't exactly gone swimmingly for the Edinburgh-based banking behemoth. The nearly 300-year-old institution saw its finances crumble so completely during the global financial crisis that it's now owned by the British government.

The bank's former CEO, Frederick Goodwin, was roundly vilified for his role in the venerable institution's 2008 collapse and for his lavish pay and perks. He was cleared of fraud by regulators, but in January was stripped of his knighthood (awarded to him in 2004 for "services to banking") in a rare move.

An investigation by British regulators made public in December blamed the bank's failure in part on management's appetite for expansion, which culminated in the 2008 takeover of the Dutch bank ABN Amro, heaping on massive debt at the same time economies were tanking and the subprime mortgage crisis hit.


Regulators also found fault with themselves for a lack of oversight. Like the United States, Britain is in the midst of implementing regulatory reforms that include requiring banks to hold more capital as a cushion to use in hard times.

The British government also is expected to consider new policies that would hold executives and directors accountable for bank failures through fines and forfeiture of their pay.

In 2008, Royal Bank of Scotland posted a loss of 24.1 billion pounds ($37.8 billion), the biggest annual loss in British corporate history. That October, the government began a two-step, $71 billion bailout giving taxpayers a roughly 80 percent ownership stake in the institution. At the same time, Mr. Goodwin stepped down.

Since then, the banking and insurance giant launched a turnaround plan that so far has included selling off non-core assets, cutting its balance sheet by some $942 billion and eliminating about 33,000 jobs.

Losses of $5.7 billion in 2009 were trimmed to $1.7 billion in 2010. Last year, losses widened to $3.2 billion.

Royal Bank of Scotland had faced some pressure from investors to jettison its $132 billion-asset Citizens Financial Group unit in the United States, which it has owned since 1988. The unit posted an operating profit of $769 million for 2011, up from $473 million in 2010.

Headed by former Citigroup executive Ellen Alemany since 2007, Citizens Financial operates a 12-state branch network under the Citizens Bank and Charter One brands. Charter One, which operates in Ohio, Illinois and Michigan, was purchased in 2004.

Late last year, Citizens said it was slimming down by closing under-used branches and cutting some 250 people across its 12-state network. The bank declined to say how many job cuts were made in the Pittsburgh area.

In Pennsylvania, branch closings were concentrated in the Philadelphia region. The bank said there were no closings in the Pittsburgh region, where Citizens is the No. 2 retail bank based on deposits behind PNC and a familiar sight inside the region's Giant Eagle stores.

Patricia Sabatini: or 412-263-3066.


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