Margareta Pagano: So, our banking system is in rehab – but will it work?
Reforming our high-street highwaymen is no easy task
Sunday 11 July 2010
One of the main reasons the public found it so easy to pillory bankers after the financial crash was that most of us had become used to being treated like mugs by the high street's highwaymen.
So when we had the evidence that bankers had mismanaged their own businesses so badly that they became insolvent, yet still paid themselves the most egregious salaries and bonuses, it didn't come as too much of a surprise.
It's perhaps unfair that all bankers got tarred with the same brush – retail bankers didn't earn anywhere near as much as high-rolling investment bankers (although they were equally incompetent) – but they were all part of the same money-making machine which was, de facto, cheating its customers. Sir Fred Goodwin became a hate figure for many, while, on Wall Street, protesters burnt effigies of their bankers. Customers had always suspected they were being cheated, but the crash gave them proof.
And the banks are up to some of their old tricks again. Today, they are still trying to sell you loans at exorbitant interest rates, and still grabbing huge fees on overdrafts. They also take charges out of your accounts directly without sending you a bill first. What other business can do that? Banks are charging overdrafts at 12 to 19 per cent, while credit cards average 18 per cent when base rates are 0.5 per cent. Even a child could see that this is daylight robbery.
But a sound and trustworthy banking system is fundamental to any society, and even more vital today as the UK struggles to rebuild the real economy and get credit flowing again. That's why it was so heartening to hear Stephen Green, the chairman of HSBC, in his lecture at the Mansion House last week to the Tomorrow's Company consultancy, admitting that the financial crisis has taught the industry many new lessons – "the importance of values in delivering value" being the most crucial of all.
As a committed Christian – Green is a lay preacher – he has perhaps more of a reason than most bank chiefs to be a mover in putting right what went wrong with the sector. Green accepts the market is flawed – knocking the arch-proponent of market fundamentalism, Milton Friedman, for his belief in putting shareholders first. Green, an optimist, hopes that if bank chiefs reform their culture into a values-driven one – shared from chairman to shop-floor – they should be able to restore trust in the market-based system. He quotes former Czech president Vaclav Havel: "Without commonly shared and widely entrenched moral values and obligations, neither the law, nor democratic government, nor even the market economy will function properly."
Green is right, and Havel's wise words spot on. But is changing the culture enough to prevent another crash? For now, banks are still in rehab; learning to live with tougher capital requirements and regulations. To my mind, we won't know the answer until next year, when the Banking Commission reports its findings on whether we should be looking at root-and-branch reform.
As Mervyn King, the Governor of the Bank of England, has said: "The one option we can't have is to keep the status quo."
BP directors' anger at safety criticisms will be assuaged by share price rise
It may seem perverse but the issue really rattling the BP directors who I've talked to is the growing media criticism suggesting the oil giant has always cut corners on safety, and that the recent Deepwater Horizon is a result of those cuts.
Understandably, they claim reports that previous chief executive, Lord Browne, presided over a period of financial engineering, taking costs out of the business by saving on safety operations, are totally unfounded and being spread by mischief-makers. Even those who don't have much time for Browne say he never compromised on safety. Why would you? As we have seen BP's reputation is everything.
It's impossible to know the truth of either claim. But according to industry statistics BP – excluding the latest Gulf catastrophe – does have one of the best records compared with its peers, and its safety protocols are used by rivals such as Shell and Exxon for benchmarking their own.
That's why insiders are as eager as the rest of the world to see the results of the investigation being led by chief executive, Tony Hayward, into precisely what led to the collapsed platform, killing 11 people. They are still taking testimony from survivors, trying to piece together the events leading up to the spill, and the report should be out internally next month. Even if fault lies with one of the sub-contractors, it doesn't help BP because they work to standard references set by BP. For the moment, BP is quietly optimistic that the two relief wells will be able to contain the spill over the next few weeks and then watch the shares, already creeping back, soar. If Shell or Exxon are going to pounce, then that would be the time, as the industry will have a better idea of the liabilities. Meanwhile, there's a certain irony to Lord Browne accepting the role of Whitehall czar, charged with cuts and governance. He has much to prove.
Position closed? Lloyds' chief executive in fight for job
I hear of skirmishes at Lloyds Banking Group as its chief executive, Eric Daniels, is said to be fighting hard to cling on to his job. According to insiders, Daniels is resisting all efforts by the chairman, Sir Win Bischoff, to persuade him to leave peacefully. Sir Win, along with some non-executive directors, are said to believe the bank needs new leadership, with a chief executive who can stamp his vision on the bank which has been through the mangle since taking over HBOS. Potential replacements are being sounded out, including Bill Winters, the ex JP Morgan banker.
But Daniels is said to have told friends that he's hopeful about holding on as: "Win has never sacked anyone yet so I doubt he's going to do it now." More pertinently, I'm told the Treasury has lost confidence in Daniels and believes the bank needs a fresh start. That sounds like that, then.
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