Did you hear the one about the honest, hard-working and decent banker? No, really, did you? Despite this being the worst week yet for an industry that’s had more than its fair share of miserable weeks in recent years, and even in spite of the fact that the accusations against the so-called “banksters” have escalated from a lack of morality to potential criminality, there remain plenty of honest, good and moral men and women working in financial services. Many of them are even in the most senior positions
Take, for example, the old story (retold to me this week) about Lord Mervyn Davies, when he was boss of Standard Chartered. As the drama of Bob Diamond’s resignation over the role of Barclays in Libor-rigging unfolded, I was offered this wonderful insight that explains why few expect Standard Chartered to be implicated in this most serious episode of financial misadventure. It also explains why Standard Chartered wasn’t quite as exposed to the financial crisis as many of its competitors.
Some time in 2006, one of Standard Chartered’s financial rocket scientists met with Davies to let the bank get involved in the sort of complex transactions that were all the rage at the time and that were making rivals (both institutions and individuals) so rich. Davies, clearly not a stupid man, asked the boffin to explain the scheme. About 20 minutes later Davies stopped him and admitted he hadn’t understood a word. A sure sign of his intelligence and honesty was that he was confidant enough to show his ignorance (not something very prevalent in banking boardrooms at the time). He gave the boffin another go, who then took half an hour to explain his ideas in plain English. Davies thanked him for his time but still didn’t follow. He is reported to have said, because he couldn’t understand the scheme, there was no way he was prepared to let the bank get into it. Two years later that already looked to be a good call; six years on it looks like the wisest possible decision.
There is danger that this sort of story makes Davies appear something of a throwback to a much-vaunted "golden age" of banking. While this week has been bad, we must resist glorifying the past or go misty eyed over an era before the Big Bang opened the City up and all those brash Americans brought their naughty ways over here. The old City was the worst kind of closed shop. Deals – rather, gentleman’s agreements – were sewn up over lunch or a round of golf, and in this age diversity meant hiring from both Oxford and Cambridge. Women, if they were in the boardroom at all, were there to make tea and take notes.
It may have its faults, but the modern financial services sector is a rare example of a UK success story. And the whole economy benefits from a thriving financial services industry. But that’s exactly why wrongdoing (especially crime) must be rooted out and acted on swiftly. Criminality must be punished as such and all financial gains must be recovered, as they would be elsewhere.
All this requires adequate regulatory oversight and proper legal protection. It’s why the government must recognise that its Financial Services Bill is not fit for purpose as it is and needs a radical overhaul.
The good news is that there is still time to get it right. But it requires politicians to stop pointing fingers over whether light-touch, tripartite regulation caused the mess and see that the proposed twin peaks regulation is equally flawed. There are myriad specialists arguing that while politicians quibble over quantity of regulation, it’s the quality of those rules that matters. Politicians must take this opportunity to learn from other people’s mistakes and create the support and regulatory structures that allow us all to be confident of hearing many more stories about decent, honest bankers in the future.
Richard Cree is editor of economia