Tuesday, 17 December 2013

Hamstrung SFO not capable of holding bankers to account

Prem Sikka

Iceland has sent four former directors of its bank Kaupthing to prison for fraud. But the chances of similar legal action happening in the UK are low, where fraud investigators have a poor record.

The Serious Fraud Office (SFO) is the main agency for investigating and prosecuting major fraud. It was formed in 1988 after a spate of high-profile cases. A government-sponsored inquiry into share price rigging at Guinness in the 1980s concluded that too many executives at major corporations had a “cynical disregard of laws and regulations … cavalier misuse of company monies … contempt for truth and common honesty. All these in a part of the City which was thought respectable”.

But rather than changing corporate laws, amending personal liability of directors, or creating an effective enforcement agency, the government created the SFO.

Last week, the SFO’s case against businessman Victor Dahdaleh collapsed because at the last minute it could not provide evidence of alleged graft. This is not the only case the SFO has botched. It spent between £25-40m investigating price-fixing by pharmaceutical companies supplying the UK’s National Health Service (NHS), but the case collapsed because of errors in the interpretation of law.

Previously, the SFO was very slow in taking action against BAE Systems over allegations of corrupt practice. The SFO mislaid 32,000 documents relating to the case. It is currently facing a lawsuit for damages from the Tchenguiz brothers after dropping a three-year investigation into the collapse of Icelandic bank Kaupthing.

Bigger beasts

In 2012-13, the SFO brought 12 cases covering 20 individuals, eventually securing 14 convictions and recovering £11.4m from fraudsters. But it rarely went after the bigger beasts. Money laundering and sanctions busting by British banks did not appear on its radar. The SFO has hardly been visible in investigating and prosecuting the misdemeanours of bankers who brought the UK economy close to collapse.

In mitigation, it might be argued that the SFO’s failures are the outcome of the politics of government cuts. In 2008-09, the SFO had an investigations and prosecutions budget of £52m. Despite the banking crash, LIBOR rigging and other scandals, the UK government has drastically reduced SFO’s resources.

For 2013-14 its budget is £30m and will decline to £28.8 million for 2014-15. That is a cut of over 44% since the start of the global financial crisis.

Faced with a reduced budget and pay freezes, the SFO has been losing experienced staff and outsourcing a lot of its legal work, often paying very high fees. Such practices make it difficult to build in-house expertise and an institutional memory.

Other countries seem to assign higher priority to fraud investigation. The US equivalent, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), has an annual budget of US$1.674 billion (about £1.1 billion). It is therefore in a far stronger position to take on the bigger beasts. The SEC has its shortcomings, but it is more likely to get a result than the SFO.

Ineffective patchwork

The SFO’s failures are indicative of Britain’s failure to build durable and effective institutional structures to fight financial crime. Rather than a single powerful and well resourced agency, there is an ineffective patchwork of institutions.

These include the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA), the Office of Fair Trading (OFT), The National Crime Agency (NCA) Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs (HMRC), the Crown Prosecution Service, the London Stock Exchange and the Financial Reporting Council, to name just a few. The overlapping and often unclear boundaries result in duplication, waste, obfuscation, delays, poor accountability and outright failures.

Any effective fight against globalised financial crime needs to streamline its institutional structures. In the age of globalisation the UK cannot fight financial crime on a shoestring, with puny organisations. Large parts of the patchwork should be replaced by a UK equivalent of the SEC.

But a new organisation would not be able to combat wealthy elites or giant corporations without significant resources. This might be expensive, but it is an investment that would pay off.

Thursday, 5 December 2013

Autumn Statement 2013: Evaluating Osborne ... 15% successful!

Are the austerians right and the opponents of austerity proved wrong? Is Osborne's strategy vindicated?

Let's judge by his own standards. In June 2010, just as the ink had dried on the coalition agreement, George Osborne rushed to the House of Commons to deliver an 'Emergency Budget'.
"It supports a strong enterprise-led recovery. It rewards work. And it protects the most vulnerable in our society. Yes it is tough; but it is also fair."
With this rhetoric, Osborne opened his remarks. But the devil was in the detail of the accompanying forecasts. So how has he done 3 years on? We evaluate:

Osborne predicted that economic growth would be 2.8% this year - a target he may get close to (we'll find out next month), but that was on the back on growth of 2.8% last year as well (instead, in 2012 the economy grew by just 0.2%). The OBR predicts that growth will be 1.4% in 2013 (but this is still an underestimate)

Far from being back on track, the UK economy still lags 2.5% below where we were in 2008. So at best half marks for Osborne on economic growth. And that's before we factor in growing concerns about the sustainability of George's recovery. Half marks.
  • Economic growth 0.5/1
That same June 2010 forecast predicted that average wage growth in 2013/14 would be 4.9%. With average wage 'growth' currently at just 0.7% there is no gentle way to put this, that was woefully wrong.

While this year the FTSE100 directors will see their seven-figure salaries increase by an average of 14%, for the rest of us there is no recovery. People's incomes have been cut in real terms. The ONS points out that the median household income has dropped 6.4% for working age households over the last five years. Fail.

  • Wages 0/1
Unemployment has declined marginally in recent months, but is still high at 7.6% of the economically active population. That figure however conceals stubbornly high youth unemployment and long-term unemployment - failed by shambolic government programmes.

In 2010, Osborne told us unemployment would today be just 6.8%. So 250,000 fewer people should be unemployed today had Osborne hit his target. Fail.
  • Unemployment 0/1
Given Osborne erroneously said he would deal with "our country's record debts" (they were nowhere near record levels) with austerity, one would assume he would have at least had some success in reducing our debt (or at least stemmed the rate of rising debt).

By now, predicted Osborne in 2010, our debt should be 73.7% of GDP. Instead it's 75.5%.

But much of that is because GDP is far lower than predicted, so not even half marks for getting close, so quarter marks.
  • Debt 0.25/1
The reason the Chancellor is not reducing the debt, is because the deficit has not been closed at anything like the rate he predicted. By now the deficit should have been just 5% of GDP. Today Osborne announced it would be 6.8%. In cash terms they predicted £63 billion in 2010, but today it's £111bn - 75% higher than the 2010 forecast. So he'll borrow £198 billion more than he planned. Fail.
  • Deficit 0/1

Overall 0.75 out of 5 (or 15%)

Tuesday, 3 December 2013

Are you really worse off? Er, yes.

Labour has recently made some headway with its message that there is a cost of living crisis - which has continued despite Osborne's recovery. This feeds a number of other important messages, including that this is a recovery for the rich, and that you're being ripped off - and so the energy price freeze fits into the same narrative.

The average non-retired household is today 6.4% worse off since the recession - that was the finding of a report by the Office for National Statistics out earlier this week. It showed that the average household income fell from £37,900 to £32,600, in real terms over the last five years.

In fact, the average household is £300 a year worse off than it was in 2002/03. There is therefore a 'lost decade' of stagnation for household incomes.

This decline in income triggered entitlement to extra benefits (e.g tax credits) so that benefits rose from providing 7.6% to 12.3% of gross income for the median household. This is fundamentally a redistribution in the cost of living from the employer to the state - as a result of pay freezes and pay caps. So when Labour talks about a structural welfare spending cap (not individual benefit caps which are disgraceful) it is alluding to this phenomenon, and pledging to deal with the structural issues - and advocating the living wage is a part of tackling low pay subsidies like tax credits.

The resonance that Labour has had with this line has rattled the Tories.

So, in a blatantly politically-driven misanalysis, HM Treasury has produced data that shows compensation for workers has stayed the same, but what they don't see is that employers are paying more in national insurance and pension contributions. The idea that wages have been cut to sustain or even increase profits is, apparently, a myth.

Sky's economic correspondent, Ed Conway, says the Treasury report explains:
"Overall compensation includes not just wages but also the social contributions made by employers, including pension contributions and National Insurance Contributions. Technically-speaking, these are forms of payment, except that because they don’t go straight into your pocket they don’t feel particularly obvious."

In fact a less kind interpretation of this Tory spin - still not on the Treasury website - is that because it doesn't goes into your pocket, it's not really payment.

So the Tory argument is that pay has gone down (Ed Miliband's cost of living crisis) due to NI contributions going up (all Gordon Brown's fault) and pension contributions going up (your fault for living longer).

However, the argument doesn't really stack up for several reasons:
  1. Pension contributions have only gone up in real terms for funded pension schemes - which most workers don't have
  2. Part of the reason extra pension contributions are needed are due to pension holidays taken by employers in the 1990s
  3. Is the logic of the Treasury analysis of NI rise that a cut in NI would be passed on to workers in higher wages
  4. If that's the case why have the cuts in corporation tax not been passed on to workers then? Because corporation tax has fallen from 33% to 28% under New Labour, and now down to 22%.
  5. If we're all actually no worse off why - by official figures - are a million more of us living in poverty? Why are half a million of us using food banks this year?
(There's a more detailed and wonkish analysis by the TUC's Duncan Weldon here)

So was this just a political attack to try to blunt Labour's resonant cost of living line? If so, it's another sign of the civil service being used for party political purposes (and not the first time either).

But it's an indication that ahead of this year's Autumn Statement, Osborne has only spin to offer.