Tuesday, 10 July 2012

Durable change a long way off for scandal-ridden UK banking system

The role of Barclays bank in manipulating the London Interbank Offered Rate (LIBOR) continues to dominate international financial media.

The bank has already attracted fines from regulators in the UK and theUSA.
But further revelations are likely as US Senate Committees are flexing their muscles, the UK parliament has launched an inquiry and the UK’s Serious Fraud Office (SFO) has announced a criminal investigation. The temptation will be to look for scapegoats and prevent consideration of the systemic factors.

Barclays has a dark history. For example, in 2010, Barclays Bank paid US$298m in fines for “knowingly and willfully” violating international sanctions by handling hundreds of millions of dollars in clandestine transactions with banks in Cuba, Iran, Libya, Sudan and Burma.

In February 2012, the UK government introduced retrospective legislation to halt two tax avoidance schemes that would have enabled Barclays to avoid around £500 million in corporate taxes. However, Barclays is not alone. Only last month, the UK financial regulator reported that Barclays, HSBC, Lloyds and Royal Bank of Scotland mis-sold loans and hedging products to small and medium sized businesses. The financial sector has been a serial offender.

Here are a few examples.

The UK experienced a secondary banking crash in the mid-1970s. The crash revealed fraud and deceit at many banks. The UK government bailed them out and in turn had to secure a loan from the International Monetary Fund.

In the 1980s, the financial sector sold around 8.5 million endowment policies, which were linked to repayment of mortgages. The products were not suitable for everyone but were pushed just the same, and the risks were not explained to the customers.

A 2004 parliamentary report found that some 60% of the endowment policyholders have been the victims of mis-selling and face a shortfall of around £40 billion. This was followed-up by a pensions mis-selling scandal where 1.4 million people had been sold inappropriate pension schemes. The possible losses may have been £13.5 billion.

The 1990s saw the precipice bonds scandal. Around 250,000 retired people been persuaded to invest £5 billion in highly risky bonds, misleadingly sold as “low risk” products. Thousands of investors lost 80% of their savings. Then came the Split Capital Investment Trusts scandal. Once again financial products had been mis-sold and deceptively described as low risk. Some 50,000 investors may have lost £770 million.

New millennium came with a new financial scandal – the payment protection insurance (PPI) scandal. People taking out loans were forced to buy expensive insurance, which generated around £5.4 billion in annual premiums for banks and provided little protection for borrowers. This scandal is still being played out and banks may be forced to pay £10 billion in compensation.

The above has been accompanied by money laundering, tax avoidance, tax evasion, fraudulent practices to inflate share prices and of course the banking crash, which has brought the global economy to its knees.

Whichever way you look at it, banks have been serial offenders and continue to act with impunity. The entrepreneurial culture of making private profits at almost any cost has had disastrous social consequences. Fines and forced compensations have just become another business cost and the usual predatory practices have continued.

There are two main drivers of the financial scandals. Firstly, markets exert incessant pressures for ever rising profits and don’t care much whether they come from normal trade, money laundering, tax avoidance and other dodges. Secondly, the idea of assessing people’s worth through wealth is deeply embedded in western societies.

Profit-related pay became the mantra from the 1970s onwards and has been a key driver of the abuses. The typical tenure of a FTSE 350 companies CEO is around four years and declining. In this time, people at the top need to collect as much personal loot as possible and have little regard for any long-term consequences. The performance related pay applies at the lower echelons as well and again encourages short-termism and neglect of any social consequences.

In principle, regulators and politicians should be able to able to check the abuses, but the UK political institutions are weak. There is little competition amongst the political parties to devise socially responsible policies.

For the last 40 years, they have all offered various shades of light-touch regulation and veneration of markets. There has been no attempt to alleviate market pressures by forcing banks to operate as cooperatives or mutuals. Corporate and wealthy elites fund political parties and have organised effective regulation and accountability off the political agenda.

The regulators of the financial sector come primarily from the same industry and have sympathies for the narrow short-term interests of that industry. After a stint as a regulator, they then return to the same industry. The revolving-doors and ingrained conflicts of interest have prevented effective regulation and accountability.

Reforming political institutions is a necessary condition of controlling banking frauds, but a durable change is not on the horizon.

Saturday, 7 July 2012

Bankers try more of the same to solve crisis

From the Morning Star

Alarmed Bank of England policy-makers pressed the red button today and printed another £50 billion to try to boost the struggling British economy.

The bank's Monetary Policy Committee voted to increase the quantitative easing programme from £325bn to £375bn in a desperate attempt to drag the country out of a double-dip recession.

It held interest rates at a record low of 0.5 per cent.

They took the decision amid signs that the economy deteriorated in June, with the construction sector in reverse and the services sector suffering its worst performance for eight months.

The bank said the decision to pump more money into the economy came as Britain's output had barely grown for a year and-a-half amid signs its main export markets are slowing.

Left Economics Advisory Panel co-ordinator Andrew Fisher said: "The use of quantitative easing is based on the assumption that our economic system is in crisis due to a lack of available credit.

"But the economy does not suffer from a lack of credit - it suffers from a lack of demand.

"Unemployment, underemployment and wage constraint have all produced a situation in which living standards are falling.

"The Bank of England's now £375bn quantitative easing programme has clearly not been used to extend credit to meet any growing demand.

"Instead, the banks have used the extra liquidity to speculate in derivatives markets and to invest in safer foreign markets. It's good for the banks, but bad for the UK economy."

TUC leader Brendan Barber added: "This will only stop things getting even worse, not kickstart the economy."

Monday, 2 July 2012

Banks are serially corrupt. But Vince Cable's shareholder plan won't work

Prem Sikka

Banks are serial offenders and can't be controlled by shareholders. Vince Cable, the business secretary, has correctly identified the problem of corruption at banks, but his policy prescription of asking shareholders to invigilate abusive organisations and executives has not worked and will not work. Contrary to Cable's claims, shareholders are traders and speculators rather than owners. They barely hold shares for more than three months and do not have a long-term interest in the business. They have been utterly ineffective at curbing corrupt practices at banks, as evidenced by the tide of scandals.

Banks are under the spotlight for the Libor scandal and mis-selling of loans to small businesses, but they are serial offenders. The mid-1970s secondary banking crash highlighted fraudulent practices, which also engulfed the property and the insurance sectors. The government bailed out the banks and in turn had to resort to loans from the International Monetary Fund.

In the 1980s the financial industry sold around 8.5m endowment policies for repaying mortgage loans. These were not suitable for all borrowers. Banking staff received commission for selling the policies. The risks were often not explained to the borrowers. Banks made profits but eight out of 10 policies failed to pay the promised returns and did not even provide the amounts needed to redeem the mortgages. A 2004 UK Treasury committee report estimated that 60% of borrowers had been the victims of mis-selling, facing a shortfall of around £40bn.

This was followed by the pensions mis-selling scandal where people were encouraged to abandon good employer-based pension schemes and join a private one instead. The £13.5bn scandal affected some 1.4 million people.

The late 1990s saw the precipice bonds scandal. Some 250,000 retired people were lured to invest £5bn in investments misleadingly described as low risk. Thousands of investors lost 80% of their savings.

The 21st century did not provide any respite from financial scandals. Payment protection insurance is still being played out; some 3 million people were sold expensive and unnecessary insurance and are battling for compensation which could top £10bn. Now we have the Libor and small-company loan scandal.

In between the above, banks engaged in organised and aggressive tax avoidance, tax fraud, money laundering, corruption and feeding misleading stock market research to investors to drum up business and higher fees – just to mention a few of their misdeeds.

Fines, penalties, forced compensations and regulatory action have become part of normal banking business and the costs are just passed on to customers. It is hard of think of any instance when shareholders have sought to curb rapacious behaviour of banks or their executives. They have always been focused on short-term gains and cared little about the social consequences of the quest for higher returns.

Democracy and public sunlight are effective antidotes to institutionalised corruption and should be applied here in large doses. If the government is serious about changing the predatory culture of banks then it needs to change the whole system of corporate governance. The market pressures for higher returns should be checked by turning all banks into mutuals and co-operatives. Employees, customers and borrowers have a long-term interest in the business of banks and should be empowered to elect and remunerate directors. Directors need to be made personally liable for the cost of criminal practices. At the moment banks are fined, but executives walk away with a stash of profit-related pay, with virtually no penalties. All major banking contracts should be publicly available so that we can all see the shady dealings.

The banking regulators have frequently come from the finance industry and are too close to banks. They act only after the stench of scandal has become too strong, and frequently they have been part of what a US senate report described as a "cover-up". This inertia should be checked through annual hearings by the Treasury committee. All policy meetings of the banking regulators should be held in the open, and information in the regulator's possession – including background papers – should be made publicly available.

The above is not a magic bullet for eradicating institutionalised corruption, but the beginning of reforms necessary to curb the worst excesses of an industry that has damaged the lives of millions of people.

This article first appeared on Comment is Free