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Should you buy or sell Barclays shares right now?

Barclays (LSE: BARC) boss Jes Staley is under investigation by the City regulator for the second time in three years.

In 2018, he survived an investigation into his attempts to identify a whistleblower with just a slap on the wrist and a fine. He’s now being investigated again by the Financial Conduct Authority over his past relationship with disgraced US businessman Jeffrey Epstein.

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Today I want to ask whether we need to be worried about Mr Staley — and whether Barclays’ financial performance justifies a buy rating.

Staley vs the FCA

News of the Epstein investigation emerged on the same day the bank issued a solid set of results for 2019. Despite these promising figures, the Barclays share price slipped nearly 3% on the day. This suggests to me that the market still has some concerns about the bank, or perhaps its management.

Mr Staley says he had a professional relationship with deceased financier Epstein, which stretched from 2000 until 2015. It appears that Epstein was a client of JPMorgan’s private bank, which Mr Staley ran for some of this period.

According to a statement issued on Thursday, the Barclays boss has had “no contact whatsoever with Mr Epstein” since taking charge as chief executive in December 2015.

The Barclays board is backing Mr Staley. I suspect that the FCA investigation will also allow him to continue in the top role at the bank.

However, if I was going to play devil’s advocate, I’d suggest that the board’s support for Mr Staley might not be so strong if the bank’s performance wasn’t improving. After all, it’s quite unusual for a top FTSE 100 CEO to be involved in two regulatory investigations in the space of three years.

2019 results show progress

Luckily for shareholders, Barclays’ 2019 results look fairly healthy to me. Pre-tax profit rose by 25% to £4.4bn last year. Return on tangible equity — a key measure of profitability — rose from 3.6% to 5.3%. Shareholders will be rewarded with a dividend payout of 9p per share, up from 6.5p in 2018.

Such a big increase in profits seems impressive, but I’m not sure it will be sustainable. The bulk of last year’s gains came from cutting costs and lower misconduct charges, such as PPI claims.

Top line growth was limited. Although the bank’s total income rose by 2% to £21.6bn, some of this gain was offset by an increase in bad debt charges, which rose from £1.5bn to £1.9bn. The bank’s net operating income was virtually unchanged, at £19.7bn.

Should you buy or sell Barclays?

Barclays’ share price performance has continued to disappoint, but having looked at this week’s figures, I remain cautiously optimistic. Costs are falling, misconduct charges are tapering away and the bank’s profitability is improving.

Against this backdrop, I think the stock’s valuation is attractive. The shares trade on less than eight times 2020 forecast earnings and at a 33% discount to their tangible net asset value of 262p per share. If the bank’s return on equity continues to improve, I’d expect this discount to shrink.

In the meantime, investors can expect a 5%+ dividend yield for 2020. I think the shares are likely to deliver attractive returns from current levels and would rate Barclays as a buy.

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Roland Head has no position in any of the shares mentioned. The Motley Fool UK has recommended Barclays. Views expressed on the companies mentioned in this article are those of the writer and therefore may differ from the official recommendations we make in our subscription services such as Share Advisor, Hidden Winners and Pro. Here at The Motley Fool we believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors.