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Barclays resumes dividend as annual profit halves

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·4 min read
FILE PHOTO: Workers are seen at Barclays bank offices in the Canary Wharf financial district in London
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By Lawrence White and Iain Withers

LONDON (Reuters) - Barclays has resumed modest shareholder payouts after a year-long hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic, setting expectations other British lenders will follow suit when they report 2020 earnings in the next few days.

The resumption came as Barclays' profit fell by half, much less than forecast as a strong performance by its investment bank offset provisions against bad loans from the economic fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Barclays shares, however, fell as much as 5%, after the payout plans and a vague outlook set out with no profit targets left investors underwhelmed.

The bank said its returns are likely to improve 'meaningfully', without giving any numbers, and said pressure on income at its loss-making consumer business was likely to continue over the medium term.

The investment bank outperformance is also unlikely to last, analysts warned, with further pain ahead as government stimulus packages for households and businesses are phased out.

"Overall a good set of numbers, but the focus is likely to be on the 2021 outlook statement which is very light on detail and so could lead to some disappointment," analysts at Citigroup said.

"There are some worrying signs in Barclays' retail arm, which has been battered by lower margins and the fact that people have been taking on less credit and paying down debts during coronavirus," said Adam Vetesse, analyst at investment platform eToro.

Barclays reported a profit before tax for 2020 of 3.1 billion pounds ($4.29 billion), well above an average of analyst forecasts of 1.96 billion pounds.

Barclays' investment bank had a stellar year, which in common with U.S. peers reported strong revenues from its equities and fixed income businesses as customers traded frantically in volatile markets in 2020.

The fixed income, currencies and commodities unit reported a 53% increase in income, as swings in global interest rates and prices of commodities such as oil drove trading.

Equities saw a 31% rise in income while banking fees rose by 8%.

That performance drove the bank's bonus pool up 6% for the year, although CEO Jes Staley's pay fell from 5.9 million to 4 million pounds as the bank failed to hit its overall profit goal for the year.

DIVIDENDS RETURN

Wall Street banks such as Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley also saw fourth-quarter profits sail past analysts' estimates, as coronavirus-induced volatility coupled with the impact of the U.S. elections boosted trading.

Barclays' European rival Credit Suisse meanwhile reported a comparatively weaker performance from its investment bank on Thursday.

Barclays saw impairments from bad loan provisions related to the pandemic dip to 492 million pounds in the fourth quarter, giving a full year total of 4.8 billion pounds.

The lender's consumer, cards and payments division reported a loss for the year of 1.1 billion pounds, mainly due to pandemic-linked provisions.

Barclays said on Thursday it would pay a full-year dividend of 1 pence per share and buy back 700 million pounds ($969.4 million) worth of stock, a vote of confidence in its balance sheet after regulators in December gave the green light for payouts.

The decision by Barclays to resume payouts will raise expectations that its peers will follow suit when they report earnings in the coming days.

Natwest is due to report on Friday, while HSBC, Lloyds Banking Group and Standard Chartered follow next week.

The Bank of England (BoE) had told Britain's seven biggest lenders in March to suspend dividends and share buy-backs until the end of 2020, to help them maintain capital buffers against the expected hit to their loan books from the pandemic.

The BoE said in December that banks looked strong enough to resume payouts, albeit within temporary caps.

Barclays gave no update on a probe by Britain's financial regulators into links between Staley and U.S. financier Jeffrey Epstein, who killed himself while awaiting trial on sex trafficking charges.

Staley said at the time he regretted his links to Epstein, which began in 2000 while he was employed by JPMorgan.

($1 = 0.7221 pounds)

(Reporting By Lawrence White and Iain Withers; Editing by Rachel Armstrong and Emelia Sithole-Matarise)