Britain’s financial regulators are still asleep and more scandals could follow, warns Prem Sikka
The banking crash exposed the “London loophole” – a phenomenon associated with feather-duster regulation and ideology where regulators do little to check predatory practices. Nearly five years on and despite vast bailouts, the regulators in Britain have shown little backbone or interest in cleaning-up predatory capitalism.
Rather than taking responsibility, the United Kingdom is dragged along by others. Recent exposure of money laundering and London Interbank Offered Rate (Libor) are just the latest manifestations of a crisis which shows that this country lacks the structures and the political will to curb predatory capitalism.
Any mention of effective regulation sends corporate elites into a cold sweat. They use their chequebooks to fund political parties and find jobs for former and potential ministers with the aim of stymying regulation.
They refer to the bogey of higher costs of regulation, even though the absence of effective regulation has resulted in an unprecedented economic crisis.
The elites forget that the state is the ultimate sponsor of capitalism, and has to coerce and cajole corporate beasts to curb their self-destructive tendencies. That lesson has been learned in the United States, supposedly the home of free markets, but not in Britain. Here are some recent examples.
In August 2012, the New York New York State Department of Financial Services claimed that, for 10 years, the Standard Chartered Bank schemed with the government of Iran and hid from regulators roughly 60,000 secret transactions, involving at least $250 billion. It collected millions of dollars in fees, but left the US financial system vulnerable to terrorists, weapons dealers, drug kingpins and corrupt regimes, and deprived law enforcement investigators of crucial information used to track all manner of criminal activity.
The report added that the bank carefully planned its deception and was apparently aided by its consultant, Deloitte and Touche, which intentionally omitted critical information in its “independent report” to regulators. Standard Chartered has agreed to pay a fine of $340 million. Britain’s regulators have done nothing.
In July 2012, a 300-page report by the US Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations said that HSBC circumvented banking rules designed to prevent financial dealings with Iran, North Korea and Burma. Its lax systems and controls also facilitated financial movements for drug cartels and terrorists. The bank is accused of failing to monitor some $60 trillion of transactions.
HSBC has paid $27.5 million in fines to Mexico and may be fined around $1 billion by the US regulators. The revelations should have resulted in probes in the UK, too, but there is no sign of much action, aside from a belated report into the Libor rate rigging scandal concluding that the system is broken and suggesting its complete overhaul, including criminal prosecutions for those who try to manipulate it – things most observers had concluded rather earlier.
In June 2012, the US regulators took the lead in exposing the Libor scandal. Barclays Bank paid a total fine of £290 million, including £59.5 million to the UK’s Financial Services Authority, to settle allegations of manipulating Libor and the Euro Interbank Offered Rate (Euribor) lending – the rates at which banks lend to each other in the wholesale money markets. Citigroup, Deutsche Bank, JP Morgan, UBS, HSBC and the Royal Bank of Scotland are also thought to be on the US regulators’ radar.
With its reputation irrevocably tarnished by the banking crash and its imminent replacement by the Prudential Regulation Authority and the Financial Conduct Authority, the FSA now claims to be looking at some banks, but so far there is no tangible evidence of this.
The UK is a soft touch compared to the US where the Securities Exchange Commission and Department of Justice have shown some willingness to investigate, prosecute and fine corporations, although the scale and severity of this have been insufficient to curb predatory capitalism.
In contrast, the UK regulatory impulse is to protect elites by sweeping things under dust-laden carpets. A couple of examples serve to illustrate these points.
Sani Abacha, the late Nigerian dictator is estimated to have looted between $3 billion and $5 billion of public money. Despite the extensive anti-money laundering legislation, most of the loot ended up in Western banks. Around $1.3 billion is estimated to have passed through 42 bank accounts in London. Unlike Switzerland and even Jersey, the British Government has neither named the banks nor repatriated the stolen money.
The Bank of Credit and Commerce International was the biggest banking fraud of the 20th century. The Bank of England, then the banking regulator, closed it in July 1991.
Some 1.4 million depositors lost around £7 billion of their savings. In the US, Senate hearings were held and the CIA published some of its reports on BCCI’s activities. A US Senate Committee report concluded that the Bank of England and BCCI auditors Price Waterhouse (now part of PricewaterhouseCoopers) were engaged in a cover-up”.
It also released 99 per cent of a report, censored by the Bank of England, codenamed the Sandstorm Report, which described some of the frauds and named the wrongdoers and various movers and shakers.
However, the Sandstorm Report has remained a state secret in the UK. Various parliamentary committees held hearings on the BCCI scandal, but none were given sight of the Sandstorm Report.
Last year, after some five-and-half years of legal battles against the Treasury and the Information Commissioner, I managed to secure the names of the wrongdoers and some related parties.
These included members of the Abu Dhabi royal family, prominent Middle East businessmen, the head of Saudi intelligence, prominent political advisors and even the biggest funder of al Qaida, then considered to be an organisation friendly to Western interests.
Evidently, the British Government prioritised the appeasement of commercial interests over its citizens’ right to know, or even the desire to create effective banking regulation.
The UK lacks an effective regulatory system and a political culture to curb predatory capitalism. Its patchwork quilt of regulators includes the Financial Services Authority (and its successor bodies), the Bank of England, the Serious Fraud Office, Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, the London Stock Exchange, Office of Fair Trading, Financial Reporting Council and myriad private sector regulators.
They are poorly equipped to call multinational corporations to account.
With an annual budget of £37 million, the SFO is incapable of mounting effective corporate prosecutions. In contrast, the US SEC has an annual budget of $1.3 billion.
Almost all of Britain’s watchdogs come from the private sector and are usually too sympathetic to the games played by corporations. After a stint as a regulator, they return to the private sector and know the hands that they must not bite.
The UK’s patchwork system encourages duplication, buck passing and obfuscation. And it is hard to think of any timely intervention by any regulator.
Britain needs to replace the ineffective patchwork of regulators with its own equivalent of the SEC, which could be called the Business and Finance Commission. This would need to be controlled by a board representing a plurality of interests, including taxpayers, employees, customers and other stakeholders, so that elites could not easily sweep matters under the carpet.
The board should be required to meet in the open and its files should be publicly available so that we could all judge its efficiency and effectiveness. No document should be withheld from parliamentary inquiries into scandals.
All political parties need to recognise that additional financial and human resources are needed for swift investigation and prosecution of corporate misdemeanours. Without change, the UK will not have an effective regulatory system.
This article first appeared in Tribune magazine