Not that long ago, bankers were respectability personified. Fun-loving, maybe not. Risk-hungry, certainly not. Pillars of the community, absolutely.
But the financial crisis made everyone realise the safe old image was an anachronism – and a dangerous one at that. Ever since the crisis peaked a couple of years ago, banks that have not been spending all their time merely trying to stay afloat have been fending off attacks from politicians, regulators and the mass media. They caused the crisis. They cost governments billions in bail-out money. What are they doing to make amends to society?
Perennially top of the to-fix list is the issue of bankers’ pay. Over the past decade, a gulf has opened up between high-street bankers who were the paragons of society a few years earlier, and deal-fixers and traders who were rewarded for riding the boom but have not really been punished for the bust. Despite being tarred with the same brush by the general public, the upstanding branch manager – and his or her team of tellers – have just as much reason as the rest of society to feel bitter about the investment bankers.
They raked in the big money in the boom years, motivated by revenue-based bonus structures to take ever greater risks, regardless of the longer-term fall-out, and have continued raking it in ever since. That is partly because a low interest rate environment – vital to prop up economies in the wake of the crisis – has ironically favoured investment banking, but it is also partly an intrinsic byproduct of the capitalist marketplace: one bank cannot afford to cut pay if its rivals do not, for fear of losing its best staff.
There have been attempts at a political and regulatory level to deal with the issue. The UK has gone furthest so far – with the Financial Services Authority imposing restrictions on the structure of bonus payments and the last Labour government imposing a one-off bonus tax. The European Union has followed up with stricter pan-European limitations on the proportion of a bonus that can be paid in no-strings cash. Other big economies have fallen into line with a G20 ruling that a significant chunk of bonuses should be deferred over several years.
There is continued scepticism in many quarters, with critics insistent that it is not the structure of pay that matters but the huge disparity of total remuneration when compared with do-good professions, such as doctors, nurses and teachers. But supporters of the reforms insist that disincentivising short-term profit is key. “There is a real link now between what is ethical and what is risk-adjusted,” says Chris Harvey, global head of financial services at Deloitte.
Particularly in Europe but also in the US, pay has vied with one other topic for dominance in the debate about the sector’s future – the role of banks as facilitators of the global economy. Since the crisis, various governments on both sides of the Atlantic have imposed lending targets on big banks, particularly those that were the recipients of state bail-out money. “It’s ironic,” says Mr Harvey at Deloitte. “Politicians are saying: ‘we think you took on too much risk. But now we want you to lend more’.”
Such targets tread a fine line between a free market and a managed economy. “Many regulators think socially useful banking is socially engineered banking,” says Bob Penn, partner at law firm Allen & Overy.
So far, at least, the banks have sought to hit the targets and when they have not, as happened in the UK last year, there has been no comeback.
The political pressure on the banks to lend more is at odds with the drive by international regulators, supported by those same politicians, to make the banking sector safer by boosting capital and liquid funding reserves. But while many banks remain reluctant to ramp up lending on their own books, there has been a trickle of initiatives aimed at addressing the issue of small business funding through the back door.
In 2009, with profits booming and a public backlash looming, Goldman Sachs diverted $500m of partners’ bonus accruals into the Goldman Sachs Gives programme, a charitable venture that has among its aims “creating jobs and economic growth”. At the same time, the bank launched a $500m programme to provide loans and grants to small business in New York and Los Angeles.
Last month in the UK, John Varley, Barclays’ chief executive, launched a 10-year £1.5bn venture capital fund, on behalf of the British banking industry, to inject equity into small businesses. Critics said the size of the fund meant it could realistically back only a couple of dozen companies. But bankers defended it as a useful mechanism to put equity into capital-starved businesses, which could then in turn attract bank loans more easily.
In France, Crédit Agricole has prided itself on doing more than most to address the needs of its clients and broader French society amid the current economic difficulties. “Our main role has been to provide credit to the economy,” says Joseph d’Auzay, general secretary. “Throughout this period, we have never failed to increase our lending to the economy.”
But the approach of the group – which has its roots in a mutually owned network of local lenders based in the farming industry – goes beyond the credit business. Mr d’Auzay is proud of having set up a network of specialist offices to give help to the needy – not just Crédit Agricole customers, but clients of other banks, too. “It’s like a private citizens’ advice bureau,” he says. “We will talk to those going through difficulties and help them get financial assistance, help them work out a family budget and understand how to save.”
Mr d’Auzay also mentions a programme to recycle the bank’s old stock of computers which, once “thoroughly cleaned” at a specialist processing plant in Tours, in the centre of France, are passed on to the “disenfranchised”.
Though perhaps less quirky, there are countless examples of banks engaging with society around them and signing up to corporate social responsibility programmes. Following the crisis they are keener than ever to shout about their good works. Goldman’s 10,000 Women programme, which seeks to support female entrepreneurs in 21 emerging economies through business and management education, access to capital and mentoring networks, is one of the most widely acclaimed.
But in their core approach to business, a wholehearted adoption of ethical practices remains on the margin of the industry, with operators such as Triodos Bank in the Netherlands and The Co-operative in the UK among only a few names to sign up to wholesale pledges on lending and investing ethically.
One initiative that may suggest an incursion of the approach into the mainstream, however, was launched recently by emerging markets bank Standard Chartered, with the first of a series of reports on the bank’s social and economic impact on the markets in which it operates. Peter Sands, chief executive, said he hoped the first report, on Ghana, would encourage other banks to assess the usefulness of their activities.
“The banking industry needs to be thoughtful about what it is doing,” he said at the time of the launch. “You have to think: ‘what is this for?’”.
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