UBS’s £940m fine disproves the theory that a few bad apples have caused the rot. It now seems the problem is cultural
The pledge made by one UBS trader – “I’m a man of my word” – seems a fine sentiment, until the realisation dawns that the promise he is making is to do “one humongous deal” with a broker to help him manipulate the Libor rate.
Last week saw another blizzard of revelations in the Libor scandal, as the Swiss bank was slapped with hefty fines for repeatedly trying to fiddle the key interest rate.
“I will fucking do one humongous deal with you … Like a 50,000-buck deal, whatever … I need you to keep it as low as possible … If you do that … I’ll pay you, you know, $50,000, $100,000 … whatever you want.”
The revelations contained in the documents published alongside last week’s settlement with regulators in the UK, US and Switzerland, as they fined UBS £940m, came at the end of a year of shame for banking.
Andrew Simms of thinktank the New Economics Foundation now says that, far from the banking crisis being caused by a few bad apples, “the level of mould inside the barrel is thick and healthy and covering every part of it”. The coalition is in the process of rethinking the UK regulatory regime – giving the Bank of England back the power to police the banks, for example – but Simms says the changes are little more than cosmetic: “I think the banks feel almost untouchable – the absence of any genuine structural reforms; the absence of any genuine change of culture. I think they think they’ve got away with it.”
Taxpayers who had hoped the multibillion-pound rescues of Northern Rock, RBS and Lloyds Banking Group marked the darkest days of the financial crisis have instead watched with horror as increased scrutiny from the world’s regulators has uncovered a consistent pattern of misbehaviour and, in some cases, outright fraud.
An industry once viewed by ministers – not least in the Labour government – as a world-beating national champion has become not only a drain on the public purse, but a source of shame.
“We have just had one scandal after another,” says Vince Cable, the business secretary, whose strong reputation in opposition was founded partly on his fierce criticisms of Britain’s banks. “There is a deep cultural problem.”
And he argues that the failings are not confined to the swashbuckling disregard for the public interest revealed in the Barclays and UBS cases. It also extended to the retail banks’ dealings with ordinary savers and borrowers: “The high street banks lost their relationship with their customers.”
The legacy of the era when anyone who ventured into a branch could expect to be bombarded with offers of loans and insurance has come back to bite the biggest banks. The bill to compensate customers wrongly sold payment protection insurance has already topped £12bn, for example, while small business customers mis-sold interest rate swaps are also awaiting multimillion-pound payouts.
The same claims companies that have spearheaded the effort to win PPI compensation for clients are now turning their efforts to investigating the interest-only mortgages that were popular while house prices were booming.
And one after another, the major banks have been fined for a string of other offences. Even those once regarded as having escaped the 2008 banking crisis with their reputations intact – HSBC and Standard Chartered – have now joined the shameful roll-call.
HSBC was fined £1.2bn by US authorities for having systems so lax that it let billions of pounds be laundered for drug barons in Mexico; cashiers in its Mexican branches had extra-wide windows to allow the piles of cash to be paid in.
Standard Chartered paid £415m in penalties after breaching US rules on money laundering, including with Iran. One of its top executives, Richard Meddings, is said to have responded to warnings about the bank’s misdeeds with: “You fucking Americans. Who are you to tell us, the rest of the world, that we’re not going to deal with Iranians?” The bank denies such remarks were made.
Barclays was fined £290m by the Financial Services Authority and US regulators after its traders were found to be offering bottles of Bollinger champagne in exchange for collusion in fixing Libor.
Then last week came the fine for UBS over charges that 40 staff were involved in or aware of efforts to rig Libor. The banks made corrupt payments of £15,000 a quarter to brokers to help fix the rates. Two former employees of the Swiss bank – including British citizen Tom Hayes – have been charged in the US.
There will be more Libor revelations in the new year, too: bailed-out Royal Bank of Scotland is expected to be next. The Financial Services Authority still has investigations under way into six financial firms, not all of them banks.
This apparently widespread culture of “gaming” any rules put in place to constrain the banks’ activities underpinned the findings of the parliamentary commission on banking standards, chaired by Tory MP Andrew Tyrie, which issued its first report on Friday.
George Osborne has backed the proposals of Sir John Vickers’s commission on banking, which called for the banks’ safer retail activities to be legally and financially separated from their riskier investment banking businesses. But Tyrie and his colleagues argued that this so-called ring fence between the two types of activity should be “electrified”, to prevent canny banks from finding a way around it.
Tyrie said the latest revelations about the banks’ behaviour “beggar belief,” and offer “the clearest illustration yet that a great deal more needs to be done to restore standards”.
Chris Leslie of the shadow Treasury team says Labour will fight to have a backstop written into the legislation in the new year that would impose a full split on the banks if they have failed to implement the Vickers proposals faithfully by 2015.
“It’s about trying to create a banking system that is not only safe but appears to be safe, not just for customers but for taxpayers,” he says. “The jury’s out on a ring fence, therefore we have got to insure against its failure.”
Tyrie’s commission is due to report next year on a series of other issues, such as whether a new professional body might take on the role of banning miscreant bankers in the same way as the General Medical Council has the power to strike off doctors.
But Cable says new rules and regulations, and measures such as the coalition’s creation of two new watchdogs, the Prudential Regulation Authority (inside the Bank) and the Financial Conduct Authority, can only go so far.
“You can only partly deal with these things through structural reform,” he says. He points to the importance of competition – challengers such as Metro Bank, Handelsbanken and the mutually owned Co-op grabbing a growing share of new business – as another important check on the other banks’ behaviour.
He also welcomes the wholesale shake-up in personnel at the top of the major financial groups since the grim days of 2008 and 2009: “We’ve got sensible people running Lloyds and Barclays, who are much more interested in long-term banking.”
Despite the new faces, the persistence of bumper pay deals in the Square Mile has helped perpetuate fears that it is “business as usual” at the top of Britain’s financial institutions. Research by the Institute for Public Policy Research shows that people working in the financial sector routinely earn up to 20% more than those with similar qualifications elsewhere.
When it was announced last week that Hector Sants, the former boss of the Financial Services Authority, had won a package worth up to £3m in his new job at Barclays – where he has been brought in to help restore the broken corporate culture – many in the City didn’t bat an eyelid. But to outsiders it looked like an extraordinary reward for a gamekeeper turning poacher.
And while the reputational damage to the banks of the latest revelations has been serious, the financial penalties do not seem to be causing too much pain. Even as UBS admitted that the £940m payout would force it into a fourth-quarter loss, its share price barely moved, almost in relief that the bad news was out of the way.
Pete Hahn of the Cass Business School is concerned that fines have become a “cost of doing business” – one of those hiccups caused by having operations in financial centres around the world.
He asks whether instead banks that misbehave should be stripped of their licences – effectively closed down: “My suggestion is that the penalties need to be much more. That will create a real cultural change.”
Meanwhile, Cable says he can easily understand why many members of the public still don’t have confidence in the banks: “I don’t have confidence either.”