James Moore: Barclays bosses shouldn't shoot the messenger when it comes to bad news
Outlook. Plus: Cloudy outlook after Pearson's share slip; Dim and grim, but we'll muddle through
James Moore is the Independent's Associate Business Editor and writes the Outlook City comment column from Tuesday to Friday. He also has a keen interest in disability issues and when not attempting to further injure himself playing wheelchair basketball.
Tuesday 22 January 2013
Was it fear that motivated Andrew Tinney, the chief operating officer for Barclays Wealth, to shred a highly critical report into the business' American division?
It certainly looks that way, although only Mr Tinney knows for certain, and he's not speaking. He needs this to go away. The fact that he's reassuringly expensive should have headhunters beating a path to his door. But the potential for bad publicity associated with hiring him could make potential employers think twice.
Not to mention the potential for regulatory issues. Barclays will have been speaking to watchdogs on both side of the Atlantic about the affair, which came to light just days after the new chief executive, Antony Jenkins, pictured, pledged a cleaning of house. If he's serious, instead of airbrushing Mr Tinney out of existence he might want to pay the luckless executive a visit. He ought to sit down with him and ask why.
Escalation, as it is known, is an established practice at the big banks. Any problem should be escalated up through management until, if it's bad enough, it gets right to the top.
It seems to work at the lower-to-middle levels. The employees – and ex-employees – of banks that I've spoken to confirm this.
But at some step of the process the real banana skins get quietly deposited in waste bins in the hope that they'll go away before getting to the top. It seems that the higher you climb up the ladder of these organisations the more blood-curdling the bawlings out are, and the more fearful people are of incurring one.
This explains why so many executives can say "we didn't know" about the scandalous behaviour going on under their noses. Their subordinates were too scared to escalate damaging information up to them.
The first person shot when a scandal rears its ugly head is very often the messenger.
Top executives don't like hearing bad news. They employ legions of flunkies and flappers to immunise themselves from it. They pay market-research companies to tell them that they are loved by their customers in the same way that North Koreans love Kim Jong-un. Their reaction to any information that says otherwise is to blow a gasket.
Is Mr Jenkins capable of changing this? He was, remember, at Citigroup – another bank notorious for its aggressive management – before Barclays. So were many of his colleagues.
He says that in future Barclays' core values will be integrity, service, excellence, stewardship and, perhaps most importantly, respect.
The big beasts in the Barclays jungle need to learn to have some of that for their underlings so that they feel confident enough to alert them when there's trouble brewing. Otherwise we'll be here again.
Cloudy outlook after Pearson's share slip
Poor old Pearson. The educational publisher and Financial Times owner has been accustomed to beating expectations with its trading updates.
Yesterday the reverse was true. It wasn't quite a profit warning. Not quite. The company's shares were the biggest fallers on the FTSE 100, but a 3 per cent reversal is a slip, not a slide, and forecasts were only downgraded a bit.
All the same, the outlook from here is cloudy. The fourth-quarter of the year did not go well and it tends to be an important one for sales of corporate advertising, educational books, and the titles Penguin puts out.
What's more, while the group is expecting increased revenues from the pink 'un, switching the City's bible from digital to print is proving to be costly. Which ought to be good for another round of rumours about a future sale of the business. They're hardy perennials in the City.
The problem for Pearson is that there is likely to be more of this. Education budgets in the US, a key part of Pearson's business, are being squeezed and it can only get worse. And that's with the Democrats in the ascendancy. The situation will rapidly deteriorate even more if the Republicans can put a lid on their crazies and find a way of making themselves electable again.
John Fallon, chief executive, is going to have to navigate his way through some choppy waters. The position he finds himself in is really rather similar to that of Philip Clarke at Tesco.
Mr Fallon's old boss, Marjorie Scardino, is a Dame. Terry Leahy, whom Mr Clarke reported to, is a knight. Both are City giants, and among their greatest achievements was timing their departures to perfection.
Dim and grim, but we'll muddle through
Power cuts have been a feature of life in Britain over the past few days. Icy weather is not conducive to the efficient conduction of electricity at the time when it is needed most. It's a sobering experience to find oneself in darkness scrabbling for candles with only a child's flickering torch for illumination.
Is this something we're going to have to get used to, though? According to Ofgem the safety margin of generating capacity over consumption might slip to just 4 per cent by 2015 as older, fossil-fuel burning power plants are taken offline. Alternatives – wind power, nuclear – tend to create a great deal of fuss which delays their providing new capacity.
Things have started to move, and the National Grid still thinks the most likely scenario is that there'll be enough energy to fulfil our needs. But it does have a scenario where things don't quite go to plan.
Does this mean the lights will go out, as has happened during the chill? Well, no. It's more likely that they'll be quite a bit duller, but will just about work. It'll be similar with the heating. So it'll be dim, and a bit grim, but we'll muddle through. A bit like the economy right now, the weakness of which might actually help to avert the Grid's worst-case scenario.
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