This was not a case of loose tongues leaking a story by accident – it had to come from a high-level or well-connected source to have the credibility to entice both newspapers. And while the Dutch have most to gain from a rising share price, the story is unlikely to have come from their side, because most of the bank’s UK comms is handled in-house and is not stock-market related.
ABN Amro’s staff are unlikely to leak at this level. The same is true of the Dutch board – they would surely target their own country’s press first.
However, there is a problem with assuming that Barclays was the source of the leak, because prematurely getting the news out in the open will make it harder to do the deal. Equally, the bank’s behaviour on Monday morning screamed of internal disarray. Instead of confirming its interest in such a deal, it belatedly put out a holding statement, saying simply that it had noted the speculation and promising more information the following day.
Rightly or wrongly, this suggests that on Monday morning Barclays had still not decided what to do. This in turn implies that there is disagreement among the top people at the bank – some wanting to do the deal, and others not wanting to.
How they line up is not known, but CEO John Varley has expressed grave reservations in the past about the wisdom of so-called transformational deals. Others may be more gung-ho. Bob Diamond, the banker who runs Barclays Capital, might well be attracted by the opportunity to pick up the ABN Amro securities arm.
Or they could be in agreement, with dissent coming from elsewhere. Either way, the leak seems to have been designed to bring things to a head internally and to force a decision. And lest that sound too conspiratorial, Barclays has form in this area. It once had a chairman who regularly leaked to the press the names of potential CEOs who he did not like – because premature publicity inevitably destroyed their chances.
Anthony Hilton is City commentator on London’s Evening Standard