Jim Armitage: Their flexible friend - the rules as applied to miscreant banks


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The Independent Online

Outlook Next time you get a parking ticket, don’t forget to phone the council and start negotiating down the fine. If you can afford it, you might want to get a bunch of lawyers to do this on your behalf.

Or, when you’re flashed speeding, be sure to get your bargaining hat on when you go round to the police station to negotiate how many points you’re willing to have on your licence.

But, hang on a minute, I hear you say, you can’t do that. In this country, it’s the authorities who tell the miscreant what the punishment is. The wrongdoer can’t sit there haggling over the price, or refuse to pay it until he gets a better offer. This is Britain, not some Moroccan souk.

You’d be right, of course. But not when it comes to our big banks.

For, as yesterday’s fines showed, to some extent, banks get to pick and choose – co-operate here and you get a discount, admit to this and you get another, ’fess up quickly and we’ll knock off a few mill.

Now, as the Barclays forex case shows, you even get to set one regulator up against another. Just like in the souk, if you don’t like one deal, you can go down the lane and try another.

Barclays has opted – it has a choice, as you see – not to settle for the same range of discounts as the other forex-fixing banks have done. Because it fancies its chances are better with US regulators if it doesn’t.

The regulator says this is as good as it gets. If it did not negotiate a settlement with the banks, all such cases would have to go through the arduous and lengthy process of a court of law.

Yes, we’d get to see all the gory details and not just a sanitised “settled” version, but it could take the best part of a decade for the guys in wigs to start debating them.

This is true, but at least with a criminal trial the public gets to see all the evidence and hear all the allegations.

Trouble is, of course, only the juniors ever end up in court.

But fines like these – tax deductible, of course – barely register as a pinprick on our megabanks.