Editorial: Harsh winds must blow through the City

 

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If there were those in the financial-services industry who thought – four years after the collapse of Lehman Brothers – that the pressure for reform might be abating, they could hardly be more wrong. For all the efforts so far, the work of restoring trust in Britain's banks has barely begun.

Ed Miliband's tough talk at the weekend was, therefore, half right. In fact, the Labour leader's threats to introduce modern-day "Glass-Steagall" legislation to split banks' retail and investment operations can largely be chalked up to politics. On the eve of his party conference, with commentators and potential voters alike clamouring for policy details he will struggle to provide so far from an election, Mr Miliband's broadside against the banks ticked all the boxes. By tilting at so unpopular a target and – ostensibly, at least – fleshing out his nebulous (if appealing) notion of "responsible capitalism", his remarks were a fine entrée for tomorrow's big speech.

In fact, with new laws obliging banks to "ring fence" retail deposits already in the works, Mr Miliband's fulminations are more rhetorical flourish than actual policy. But his counsel against back-sliding is still valid. There has been some softening of Sir John Vickers' proposed reforms to ensure the taxpayer bailouts that followed the financial crisis need never be repeated. The changes may not be the wholesale sell-out that some suggest, but with the consultation period only this month concluded and the final legislation not due until 2015, the banks are still lobbying hard. The Chancellor must resist further concessions.

Nor is Vickers all the banks have to worry about. Martin Wheatley, the head of the new Financial Conduct Authority, is also no push-over. Fresh from the triumph of his plans to reform the Libor benchmark rate – published to much commendation last week and now to be taken up globally – Mr Wheatley warns in this newspaper today that the finance industry has "a big wake-up call coming". He vows to crack down hard on abuses, with commodities markets an early priority.

Mr Wheatley's zest and commitment can only be applauded. Ultimately, however, neither he, nor Sir John, nor even the Chancellor (whether Conservative or Labour) can do all the heavy lifting required. The heart of the problem is one of culture, and, as such, it must be met by the banks themselves. The good news is that, even within the industry, the pressure is building. If 2008 was the year the bubble burst, 2012 is shaping up to be the one in which banks are finally forced to acknowledge the gory details of their culpability. Month by month, the evidence of a truly rotten culture piles up. The "London Whale" trader who apparently lost JP Morgan $2bn (£1.2bn), the mis-selling of payment-protection insurance, the Libor-fixing scandal, money laundering claims at HSBC, alleged sanctions-busting at Standard Chartered; the list goes on.

There is some evidence that the penny is dropping, at last. The new Barclays chairman is to change the bank's pay structure so that sales are not the only yardstick and the new chief executive is pruning the most controversial tax unit. Meanwhile, Royal Bank of Scotland's Stephen Hester has warned it could take a generation to change the culture of his industry, but at least he recognises the need to do so.

A start, then, but a most meagre one. Now other banks must follow their lead, and not only when caught out by scandal. Ring fences, even forced separation, are not the only answer. It will take the Vickers reforms, the zeal of Mr Wheatley, and concerted effort from bankers themselves to sweep the Augean stables clean. Are they ready?

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