Before Alison provides an update on the bank’s performance and progress against our purpose-led strategy, I will say a few words from the Board’s perspective on what was another eventful year.
As countries finally opened up for business in 2022 after two years of pandemic lockdowns, the global economy faced further pressures resulting from the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which continues to have a devastating impact on the people who live there, as well as adding to the rising cost of living and the cost of doing business all over the world.
These factors, along with a rapidly changing political landscape, drove inflation in the UK to a 40-year high, with consumers and businesses facing increased costs and considerable uncertainty.
In response, the Bank of England raised interest rates from 0.5 per cent in February 2022 to 3.5 per cent at the end of the year, and last month, they had increased to 4.25 per cent, the highest in 14 years.
While there are some grounds for cautious optimism, with employment remaining high, the economic environment will remain challenging for some time to come, with expected further tightening of consumer spending and real incomes, which will put pressure on household budgets.
The UK may or may not experience a technical recession in 2023 – economic forecasters differ on that point – but the economy is unlikely to grow significantly.
In the first few months of the year, we have already seen the impact that uncertainty and rising interest rates can have on the banking sector, with the collapse of Silicon Valley Bank in the United States and some other lenders there. We also saw the acquisition of Credit Suisse by UBS, facilitated by the Swiss authorities.
Ultimately, poor risk management and long-standing, idiosyncratic challenges were largely to blame for those failures.
The NatWest Group, by contrast, has built a robust and resilient balance sheet with strong capital and liquidity, a largely secured retail loan book and well-diversified Commercial lending.
Tight risk management underpins our strategy and ensures we are well-positioned for the future.
We nonetheless continue to monitor customer activity and behaviours closely for signs of stress, taking action where appropriate.
Against this difficult and uncertain economic backdrop, the Group performed strongly in 2022 with continued responsible growth in our lending and progress against our strategy.
The bank’s share price increased by 17.5 per cent in 2022, outperforming our major UK peers.
We also continued to deliver sustainable returns to shareholders, announcing £5.1 billion of dividends and buybacks for 2022.
As well as the £1 billion final dividend that you are voting on today, we paid an interim dividend of £364 million and a special dividend of £1.75 billion, alongside a share consolidation.
We also completed a £750 million on-market buyback and announced a further £800 million share buyback at our Full Year Results.
And we were pleased to have the opportunity to buy back £1.2bn of shares directly from the government.
The government also continued to sell shares into the market throughout the year through its trading plan, which the Treasury recently announced it will maintain until August 2025.
As a result of these disposals, the government’s shareholding is now below 42 per cent, down from 52 per cent at the start of last year.
That is positive progress on the path to full privatisation.
Today, we are seeking to renew our shareholder authority to undertake further directed buybacks, should the Treasury give us permission to do so.
Since the last AGM there have been a number of changes to the Board.
Last October we welcomed Roisin Donnelly as a non-executive director. She recently became a member of our Group Sustainable Banking Committee and will assume the roles of Consumer Duty Board Champion and Chair of the Colleague Advisory Panel following today’s meeting.
In December we said farewell to Robert Gillespie, who resigned after nine years as a non-executive director. Lena Wilson succeeded Robert as Chair of the Performance and Remuneration Committee in September, allowing for an orderly handover.
On the first of April of this year, Stuart Lewis joined the Board as a non-executive director and member of the Risk Committee and Audit Committee. Subject to regulatory approval, he will chair the Risk Committee from the beginning of August, replacing Morten Friis who plans to step down at the end of July after nine years’ service.
Mike Rogers will leave the board at the conclusion of today’s meeting, and Yasmin Jetha will succeed Mike as Chair of the Sustainable Banking Committee. The remit of that Committee will expand to include matters currently within the remit of the Technology and Innovation Committee, which will be retired as a standalone Committee.
On our ring-fenced bank board, Graham Beale, who has been Senior Independent Director there since 2018, has indicated his intention to step down as a director at the end of July. Subject to regulatory approval, another of our ring-fenced bank directors, Ian Cormack, will succeed Graham as the Senior Independent Director of NatWest Holdings from the beginning of August, and we will recruit a third ring-fenced bank board director.
I would like to thank Robert, Morten, Mike and Graham for their commitment, diligence and immense contributions during their time with NatWest, and wish them well in the future.
Now is also an opportune time to update you on my own position. I am approaching the point where I will have served 8 years on the Board so it is appropriate to initiate the search for my successor as Chairman in the coming months.
This will allow time for a rigorous search process and an orderly handover, which I expect will take place at some point before I reach nine years tenure in July 2024. That is the maximum recommended in the UK Corporate Governance Code. The search for my successor will be led jointly by the Senior Independent Directors of NatWest Group and NatWest Holdings.
Throughout the year, strategy and climate change remained high on the Board’s agenda.
Following strong shareholder support at last year’s AGM for our ‘Say on Climate’ resolution, the Board continued its close oversight of progress on our climate ambitions. And we were pleased that we were able to publish the initial iteration of our Climate transition plan in February.
As they did during the COVID-19 pandemic, Alison and her team have continued to use the bank’s Purpose to guide decision-making, supporting our customers and continuing to lend responsibly while growing the business.
I would also like to take this opportunity to thank our colleagues who have also been exposed to the increased cost of living while helping customers to manage their finances in a volatile period, against a backdrop of rapidly rising interest rates and inflation.
Looking at the year ahead, as I have said we expect the external environment to remain challenging and we know that many people and businesses are worried about the future.
Our Group is well positioned to stand alongside the customers, colleagues and communities we serve and we are committed to providing support to all our stakeholders through the challenges – and the opportunities – in the years to come.
The Board remains fully supportive of the bank’s strategy which is helping us to build long term value and deliver long term growth as well as sustainable returns for our shareholders.
With that, I will hand over to our Chief Executive, Alison Rose…