Barclays is an intriguing bank. It has set its own direction for the last couple of years, staying outside the government's toxic assets scheme, avoiding government bail-outs by having foreign shareholders take a stake, and making the occasional daring raid on distressed assets to boost its market share. And yet it's done all this rather quietly. I was surprised when I started researching it to see just how much it has diverged from what looks like the 'norm' of hunkering down and hoping the recession will go away.

Just about the only thing Barclays did that was typical of the financial sector as a whole was to stop paying dividends. But the dividend is back, too, since a Q3 payout was announced along with the recent results.

Barclays' most imaginative, even daring, corporate play was its swoop last year for the Lehman Brothers business after the investment bank hit the skids. Barclays management has used the recession as an opportunity to expand aggressively into Europe and the US, grabbing market share along with any distressed assets that are going. It also bought credit card business Goldfish, as well as a stake in Expobank (Russia).

Of course it's been able to do this because it's chosen a typically distinctive method of funding. Instead of taking money from the Treasury, it's looked for foreign shareholders, tapping the huge wealth of sovereign funds - China, Abu Dhabi and Qatar are now big shareholders, alongside Sumitomo.

Analysts point out that the advantages of this - though the refinancing caused ructions with some UK institutions, who didn't like what they saw as unfairly advantageous terms offered to the Middle Eastern investors - are that Barclayst doesn't have the regulator looking too hard at it, has no government shareholding, and has not suffered any reputational damage during the crisis. And unlike Lloyds TSB and RBS, it doesn't have the EU breathing down its neck, either [1] .

The underlying business actually looks quite reasonable. The bank has enjoyed good income growth this year, driven mainly by international expansion, and though impairments are up, credit quality hasn't deteriorated to anything like the extent seen at some other banks. The loan loss reserve (LLR) has risen from 0.79% in H2 2007 to 1.77% now. But though this is a chunky rise, and has hidden the underlying progress in operating margin , it's nothing like as…

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