Royal Bank of Scotland bosses have been berated by shareholders at a tense AGM in Edinburgh.
Investors asked the bank’s executives to review or stop the closures of 162 branches across England and Wales.
These were announced earlier this month and they follow December’s news that a further 259 RBS and NatWest branches would be closed.
But chief executive Ross McEwan said he was “well aware of the issues” for communities and vulnerable customers, but the take-up of digital banking had been “much more dramatic than I would have expected”.
He added: “I’m convinced that if we as a bank don’t respond or put in place other alternative actions … this bank will continue to have difficulties.”
Shareholders were also angry about the mistreatment of small business who came under the remit of the bank’s now defunct Global Restructuring Group.
The GRG has been widely accused of pushing these businesses towards failure in the hope of getting their assets cheaply.
Chairman Howard Davies told shareholders that the board had carried out its own review into the controversial division.
Sky News revealed on Monday that the government is expected to announce it will sell off as much as 10% of its 70.5% stake in RBS as early as this week, having last year confirmed it planned to sell £15bn of the shares by 2023.
But Ewen Stevenson, who announced his resignation as the bank’s finance chief earlier in the day, said the poor health of European markets, partly prompted by Italy’s political chaos, might mean the government reconsiders its timing.
“Obviously, when you look at what’s been happening in the markets in the last few days with Spain and Italy and a significant sell-off in bank stocks, I would be surprised if now is an optimum time to sell stocks.”
Any sale would require the approval of Philip Hammond, the Chancellor, and would follow advice from UK Government Investments (UKGI) that it was an appropriate time to dispose of the shares.
A decision to resume RBS’s privatisation would in itself be unsurprising after it reached a long-awaited $4.9bn (£3.6bn) settlement with the US Department of Justice (DoJ) this month relating to the mis-selling of mortgage bonds before the financial crisis.
UKGI has already described it as “an entirely fair assumption” that it would be able to sell a £3bn stake in RBS during this financial year – with projections for a further £12bn of disposals during the next four fiscal years.
One headache for Mr Hammond will be that a share sale at this juncture would be at well below the 330p price at which his predecessor, George Osborne, offloaded a 5.4% stake in RBS in August 2015.
Shares in the bank closed at 289.7p on Friday, giving RBS a market capitalisation of £34.8bn and making the taxpayer’s stake worth just under £24.5bn.
RBS was rescued from collapse with capital injections from the Treasury totalling £45.5bn at an average share price of 502p.