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Business Comment

Simon English: Rather than dealing in sub-prime sludge, banks should back Arthur Daley


Outlook The present trend is for banks to be – or at least to say they are – boring. Chief executives are falling over each other in the race to be the dullest banker in Britain. Antony Jenkins at Barclays insists he is that man. Folk who talk to him say this is highly plausible, but perhaps he's just acting.

An alternative approach might be that banks should be sensible rather than risk-averse.

The Government's plan to overhaul bank regulation includes the notion that companies and individuals should be measured on the basis of their track record and their reputation. If they have 30 years of not being reckless, let's trust them when they come up with a new plan even if it doesn't tick every box on the form, in other words.

A corporate banking friend of a friend who cut his teeth in the 1990s as a branch manager says that is how it used to work. He reckons he was probably one of the last generation of bank managers visible in the community, before the "computer says no" culture took over.

He says he was among the last band of bank managers to look people in the eye and decide whether to lend to them on trust and instinct: this was before the banking world went mad and loans were just flogged off willy-nilly, so it looked bad on him if it went pear-shaped.

He says: "Here's something that would never happen these days. I used to look after some students from the local university. One came in one day and said 'I need a £1,500 overdraft this summer, I'm off to the Far East. Trust me.' He wasn't a waster, and his account was mainly in balance, so I said OK. He went out and bought a load of knock-off designer Rolexes and came back and sold them to his fellow students. He'd cleared the overdraft within four weeks of the new term, and he was always in the black after that. He did it every summer and he threw me a watch to say thank you. Today? No chance. He wouldn't even get in the door."

Two things: first, you may be sniffy about knock-off watches and the Arthur Daley-like sale of them if you wish. Second, this is definitely more palatable than shifting sub-prime sludge around the global financial system and then asking for billions from the taxpayer when the wheels fall off. As the song went: Arthur Daley was a little bit dodgy maybe, but underneath, he was alright.