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Challenges ahead, but the worst is surely over

When considering what 2013 will hold for the financial services sector in Scotland, it is tempting to ask "who knows?", especially given the seismic shocks – Lehman Brothers, major banks close to collapse, LIBOR fixing – we have had in the past five years.

FUTURES: Falls in the stock market and banking woes have shaken the economy. Will 2013 be as challenging?
FUTURES: Falls in the stock market and banking woes have shaken the economy. Will 2013 be as challenging?

However, we might just have a year of predictability in that all of the following are likely to continue: bank bashing; "mergers" in the accountancy world; the oil & gas sector dominating merger and acquisition (M&A) activity; and fund managers looking for safe but attractive homes for their clients' money.

As far as banks are concerned, what we obviously want to see is them supporting viable businesses to grow thereby creating wealth and employment.

However, "viable" is the key word here as we mustn't forget that it was cavalier lending that contributed to the economic situation we find ourselves in.

Recent experience has shown that where a strong and well communicated business plan exists, in some instances, banks are prepared to lend. However, responses are patchy and the hope would be that 2013 brings both more support and consistency.

Turning to the world of accountancy, it is likely mergers will indeed continue as for some firms the need to address succession issues and the ever increasing cost of compliance will make the marriage with a larger suitor an attractive one.

Will the mergers prove to be a success? More times than not this depends on the cultures of the businesses being aligned and a robust integration strategy.

Will clients get a better service? Mebbe's aye mebbe's no.

Some will benefit from being serviced by a larger firm, which gives it access to greater levels of expertise and global reach. Others will baulk at the threat of increased fees.

However, despite the shrinkage in the sector there should still be enough competition to enable customers to vote with their feet if appropriate.

What of the M&A market and its resultant significant impact on financial services?

With the honourable exception of one-offs such as the Barrs/Britvic merger, mega deals are likely to be few and far between.

The M&A market is therefore likely to be dominated by mid-size transactions and 2013 is unlikely to differ greatly from the previous few years in that activity is likely to be centred on the oil and gas services sector and therefore predominantly Aberdeen.

Does this mean that the central belt will be a ghost land? Not necessarily as if we have enough deal-makers proactively seeking out good quality transactions, they will happen, there will just be fewer of them than elsewhere.

Our fund managers are likely to face an interesting 2013. Investment in the stock markets will test their skills. For example, recently I received two communications giving completely polarised views.

One warned of Armageddon due to factors such as inter alia, fiscal cliffs, triple dip recession and eurozone collapse.

The other expressed the view that there was never a better time to buy equities on the back of a recovering housing market, Generation Y about to start being serious consumers and gas finds.

On the private equity and venture capital front, fund raising is likely to remain difficult.

However, funds with firepower entry prices are likely to remain attractive with the opportunity to put in place innovative funding structures to compensate for the absence of "Stretch Debt" being available from the banks for the foreseeable future.

Angel syndicates look likely to increase with signs of a movement into more mature businesses than they have invested in hitherto.

In summary then 2013 will undoubtedly be challenging for financial services in Scotland. However with the banking sector hopefully past the worst and with remarkable resilience having been shown in other areas there is cause for cautious optimism before launching ourselves into a brave new year.

l Jack Ogston is a former head of corporate and structured finance at Clydesdale Bank who now holds a number of non-executive director positions.

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