“This awful summer? We’ve only ourselves to blame ... ” Sir David Attenborough may have been referring to weather systems battering Britain at the time but he might just as easily have been talking about UK banks. Allegations of mis-selling, Libor rigging and money laundering have drained trust in the financial sector even further. Indeed, any new blows will have an ever decreasing impact, for it seems that few now expect anything better from our banks.
How can we bring banking’s Dark Age to an end? For years now we have been stuck in the era of retribution. Pay and bonuses have been a big problem, but there is still much work to be done to analyse the true causes of the financial crisis and to learn its lessons.
This autumn we in the UK have an opportunity to right this. Parliament has just returned from recess and its Commission on Banking Standards will begin work in earnest. And just as Sir John Vickers gave clear recommendations on the industry’s structure, so this new commission has a golden opportunity to make a critical intervention on an issue of equal import: human behaviour.
Much has been written about culture and values in banking. When Bob Diamond talked about “a culture of integrity and trust” at Barclays he was pilloried, but are others’ claims that our banks have become degenerate any less off beam? If we want banks to change the way they see themselves and serve society, then we need this commission to provide an open but balanced examination of the behaviour of companies and individuals.
There is scope for this to go wrong. Bankers and politicians will be called to testify and, as the former chancellor Alistair Darling has noted, these are groups held in equally low esteem by the public. And with the commission conducting its business in front of the media, political point-scoring, personal agendas and denial could easily get in the way of progress. If this is the commission we get, it will have failed. At one extreme, it could lead to a rule-based industry and codified moral rectitude. We will tick boxes, name, shame, fine and jail. This is an option, but it will have consequences, the most severe being that future generations of serious people with fine minds decline to join the industry and this powerful transmission system for our economy will wither.
Alternatively we can have a commission where all the participants make a serious attempt to examine why some bank employees behaved as they did.
The industry is starting to move. António Horta-Osório, Lloyds’ chief executive, last week called for an end to the sales culture in banking that has driven so many scandals. Barclays has appointed Anthony Saltz, executive vice-chairman of Rothschild, to lead a review of the bank’s “values, principles and standards of operation”.
Bank boards and executive teams elsewhere know they must respond to such calls. It is now for the commission to make serious recommendations to help banks define (and in some cases rediscover) their values; and to hold bank boards accountable as custodians of a healthy culture.
Let’s hope that the coming weeks help us move on from a situation where the word culture, when applied to banks, is almost always connected to pay – as in “bonus culture” or “culture of greed”. If the commission succeeds, in future years culture will not be defined by pay or moneymaking capacity but by good human behaviour and it will be rooted in the legitimate expectations of a bank’s clients, shareholders, regulators and employees – not to mention the needs of society. The litmus test for success will be whether a moneymaker who does not live in accordance with the value system of a bank can keep his job.
The unreconstructed banker will read these words and laugh. But for an industry where most tangible assets are relatively commoditised, the strongest source of competitive advantage in future will be how people behave when no one is looking. Organisations made up of talented people with the right values will be most likely to outperform.
The commission faces a difficult task between now and Christmas, but there are reasons for hope. The Vickers commission achieved what few thought possible when it was conceived: political consensus. In Andrew Tyrie the new commission has a strong chairman and, if all participants understand they must put aside personal agendas and contribute, it too can succeed.
The writer is managing partner of Grovepoint Capital