There are all sorts of reasons why HSBC's mis-selling of long-term care bonds was serious enough to warrant the largest fine ever levied by the Financial Services Authority on a retail bank.
However, just one of them says it all. The bank routinely sold savings plans with a five-year investment horizon to elderly customers who did not expect to live that long.
This is one of those cases in which one wonders how City regulators ever allowed them to get away with it, so obvious do the transgressions seem. Worse, HSBC might still be getting away with it today as far as the Financial Services Authority is concerned, for it was the bank that brought the problem to the watchdog's notice, rather than vice versa.
The regulator said yesterday that the size of its fine "should serve as a warning to firms".
Well, maybe, although £40m (the cost of the penalty plus compensation for those affected) is loose change in the context of the £11.8bn profit HSBC made in 2010 alone.
A more useful deterrent would be regulatory action against some of the individuals concerned.
To start with, what has happened to the financial advisers who used to work for the HSBC subsidiary at the centre of this scandal, NHFA?
Since these salesmen and women ruthlessly exploited vulnerable customers over a five-year period, it would be good to know they are now prevented from behaving in similar fashion at another company; the FSA can offer us no reassurance that this is the case. None of them has faced personal disciplinary action.
Then there is the man with whom the buck stops – the chief executive of HSBC during the period in which the mis-selling took place.
That would be Michael Geoghegan, who stood down as chief executive of the bank at the end of last year. HSBC should already be thinking hard about him, for half of the bonus it awarded him for 2010, worth a total of £3.8m, was deferred.
On Friday, it emerged that Lloyds Banking Group is seeking to withhold some of the deferred bonus it had promised its former chief executive Eric Daniels to reflect the exposure to payment protection insurance mis-selling that it has had to declare since his departure. HSBC's PPI exposure is much smaller than Lloyds' – £270m compared with £3.2bn – but still substantial.
It may be that the bank does not consider its PPI problem serious enough to justify the clawback of some of Mr Geoghegan's bonus. If so, this latest mis-selling scandal should trigger a change of heart.
It is only when bank bosses pay a personal price for the misdeeds of their subordinates that they will really start to take this sort of issue seriously enough.Reuse content