James Moore: Was Lord Green too busy writing books to see the sub-plot going on at HSBC?

  • @TheIndyBusiness

Outlook It is sometimes said that everyone has a good book in them. Most people, though, struggle to find the time, not to mention the motivation. Lord Green, by contrast, has managed two, reflecting on such weighty subjects as reconciling a deep and abiding faith in God with a life spent in servitude to mammon and the morality of money after the economic crisis.

What's more, Britain's incumbent trade minister managed to combine his writing with running HSBC, "the world's local bank".

How on earth did he do it? When he was plain Mr, Lord Green used to say that as a globetrotting banker for a globetrotting bank he spent a lot of time in airports and on airplanes. He did his writing then, when most people might have passed the time by idly flicking through a few company reports while sipping on a glass or two of the banker's favourite fizz: Bollinger.

Perhaps he should have been wearing his undies on the outside of his suits, but writing books while running a bank is something even Superman would struggle with.

And it might have paid Lord Green's bank (and his reputation) had he flicked through a few more reports with the odd bollie. Then he might have realised that the bank he was running had a number of flaws. Its structure left the centre with too little control and oversight over the outlying parts, including a US business that sold subprime loans to people who couldn't afford them and a Mexican business chockfull of drug money.

There was also the investment bank which now appears to have been just as prone to the worst of the City's spiv culture as any backstreet brokerage. HSBC looked set to escape the worst of the Libor interest rate-fixing scandal. As a stable, largely deposit-funded bank it had no motivation to make false submissions during the financial crisis to make it look safer. But now it has emerged that at least one of its traders was cooking the books to boost his bonus when it came to Euribor rates, another interest rate susceptible to manipulation.

No one should raise questions about Mr Green's integrity. Au contraire. The cerebral businessman and part-time preacher turned minister isn't the type to play silly games with regulators. But he does have questions to answer. Such as whether time spent on books would have been better spent on business. Or whether he was just asleep at the wheel.

Still, when it comes to Euribor he might point in the direction of the subordinate who was running HSBC's investment bank. That happens to be Stuart Gulliver, who's now running the whole thing and won't have time for any books as he grapples with the mess.