Royal Bank of Scotland Group Plc’s Greatest Weaknesses

When I think of banking company Royal Bank of Scotland Group (LSE: RBS) (NYSE: RBS.US), two factors jump out at me as the firm’s greatest weaknesses and top the list of what makes the company less attractive as an investment proposition.

1) Poor cash performance

Royal Bank of Scotland is engaged in a massive restructuring programme and all the write-downs, divestments and de-gearing involved makes it hard to see the underlying performance of the business.

When in doubt, one thing we can do is follow the cash. So let’s look at RBS’s record on a number of cash indicators:

Year to December 2009 2010 2011 2012 2013
Net cash from   operations (£m) (992) 19,291 3,325 (45,113) (30,631)
Net cash from   investing (£m) 54 3,351 14 27,175 21,183
Net   increase/decrease in cash (£m) 9,261 8,344 125 (19,814) (11,664)

Operations have called heavily on cash over the last couple of years with investment gains offsetting some of the pain. However, the table shows that investment gains are volatile, so to make Royal Bank of Scotland’s business sustainable, operations need to generate cash consistently going forward.

rbs2014 could be a better year for RBS on cash generation, but there’s still a big gap to close before the firm achieves cash break-even. Cash flow is worth keeping an eye on if you are invested here.

2) Shrinking assets

As RBS struggles to free itself from the shackles of its legacy business blunders, the balance sheet is shrinking. Whichever way you look at it, Royal Bank of Scotland has a business that is getting smaller and that makes it hard to judge when the share price is reflecting a fair value for the company. Look at the record on net assets, for example:

Year to December 2009 2010 2011 2012 2013
Net assets (£m) 94,631 76,851 76,053 70,448 59,215

How much further must assets shrink before RBS finds a steady equilibrium with its operations upon which it can build future growth? It’s hard to know, and that in itself seems sufficient justification for today’s 305p-share price to discount tangible net asset value by around 16%.

What now?

Banks like Royal Bank of Scotland are less attractive than they were a few years ago, around 2009.  I think there’s still mileage in investing in RBS, but banks can be such complex beasts to analyse that it’s hard to ensure that we are buying good value.

A good starting point is to study a new report released by the Fool's senior investment analyst called "The Motley Fool's Guide to Investing in Banks."

The report looks at key value and performance indicators for banking businesses. If you think the sector is worth running your slide rule over, I urge you to look at the six ratios our top analyst applies to the five big banks listed on the London market. If you are investing in banks, you need to know this. Click here.

Kevin does not hold shares in Royal Bank of Scotland Group.