Credit where credit is due
The last week couple of weeks have told us a great deal about the world of banking; particularly that Barclays was engaged in manipulating the so called 'Libor' rate to its advantage.
Banking, lest we forget, played its part in causing the current economic crisis. So, the fact that there are continued problems is worrying.
The word credit is based on the Latin credo which means to have belief or confidence. Traditionally it was in us that banks required confidence. Now it is the other way around.
Perhaps the key question we should be asking is why organisations, such as banks, in which we have invested so much trust in the past, seem to be so willing to engage in action that we find reprehensible?
This might make finding a solution easier; though there are a range of views as to what is required.
As many are suggesting, what is required is greater regulation. This is certainly advocated by Joseph Stiglitz, who won the Nobel Prize for Economics in 2001.
Stliglitz's has long held the view that the way that we have allowed markets to be organised will result in what he called "asymmetric information" whereby there will always be those who have access to knowledge and be tempted to use to their advantage.
The Libor scandal is just the latest example of the way that the so called 'The Masters of the Universe' appear incapable of being trusted to act in a responsible way that is in everyone's interest.
Let's not forget their role in selling 'financial derivatives' (weapons of mass destruction according to billionaire investor Warren Buffet).
As Stiglitz believes, given how the current system operates, it is hardly surprising that we continue to see wrongdoing:
"It's a textbook illustration. Where there are these asymmetries a lot of these activities are directed at rent seeking [ensuring that you possess the key resources that deprive others of the ability to create opportunities for wealth creation]. It wasn't about productivity, it was taking advantage."
In his recently published book, The Price of Inequality: The Avoidable Causes and Invisible Costs of Inequality (Allen Lane), Stiglitz makes the point that 'free markets' operate in such a way as to induce behaviour that results in the 'haves' (the top 1%) making sure that they maintain control over wealth.
Similar to the arguments made by others detractors of the current system, such as Robert Skidelsky, Stiglitz believes that the system will always lead to the creation of inequality whereby the rest of the 'have nots' (the other 99%) feel alienated.
In particular Stiglitz suggests that because of way in which the elite ensure that the economic and political systems work to their advantage will ultimately undermine the desire to achieve growth and, as a consequence, affect us all through reducing the chances of social mobility and increasing alienation. He is adamant that we need to achieve a more just and equitable society.
Using arguments that are strangely resonant with those delivered by Niall Ferguson in his recent Radio Four Reith lecture, 'Civil and Uncivil societies', (though I suspect they would vehemently disagree about the solutions), Stiglitz contends that the current system stifles the ability of those most disadvantaged to seek ways to innovate and be entrepreneurial in a way that will enhance our economic prospects through growth:
"Every economy needs lots of public investments [in] roads, technology, education. In a democracy you're going to get more of those investments if you have more equity. Because as societies get divided, the rich worry that you will use the power of the state to redistribute. They therefore want to restrict the power of the state so you wind up with weaker states, weaker public investments and weaker growth."
Unsurprisingly, Stiglitz posits, we need a better system than the one that encourages greedy bankers to manipulate the systems to ensure that they enjoy salaries (and bonuses) that are based on what increasingly appear to be, at best, severely flawed data and, at worst, simply fraudulent.
The only way to achieve improvement, he believes, is to create an alternative system which undermines the economic and political power currently enjoyed by the financial sector.
Critically, though, he argues that we need more stringent regulation and, in order to restore credibility, the imposition of justice. So, as an immediate sign that we will no longer tolerate fraudulent behaviour by those who manipulate the financial system to their advantage, he advocates jail sentences.
Stiglitz's views do not attract universal agreement.
Anthony Hilton writing in last week's Independent thinks that imposing more regulation is not the answer and that if we want a 'better' culture, we need a form of leadership which ensures that the financial system operates with integrity that will restore out trust.
Rules, Hilton argues, do not engender better behaviour:
"They erode rather than encourage ethical behaviour. They stop people asking themselves crucial questions about whether they are doing the right thing and substitute instead whether they are doing what is allowed."
Reflecting on an event he had recently attended, Tomorrow's Company, he considers the views of one of the speakers, David Pitt-Watson, who is a fund manager for Hermes, and who asked the question: "What is regulation for?"
Hilton quotes Pitt-Watson who believes that the key to recovering trust in the financial system is to create alternative organisations that are firmly rooted in 'good behaviour' and seek to inculcate the values that are consistent with the view of banking we used to possess when it was seen as stable (perhaps boring).
Customers, according to Hilton, should be seen as the genuine priority and the system should operate to protect their interests and certainly not to create imaginative ways to make money out of nothing.
In order to do this, Hilton contends, a new cadre of leaders is needed. Such people, he recommends, should be appointed on their desire to do the 'right thing' and should be seen to eschew the current culture in which bonuses are the paramount objective.
For those who can remember, in the 1970s in London, The so called 'Flying Squad' (also referred to as 'The Sweeney'), a specialist unit within the Metropolitan Police's Force, was widely seen being too close to the very criminals they were supposed to catch.
The conviction of many members of the Flying Squad for corruption, most notably Commander Kenneth Drury, caused a severe loss of trust by the public in the London police; especially when they read in the Sunday papers about bribery by pornographers such as James Humphries to turn a 'blind eye' to his activities.
The need need to urgently restore trust resulted in changes and the appointment of new leaders to ensure that the image of the Metropolitan Police Force was seen to change through the actions of those who genuinely wished to serve the public and, most importantly, part of a new culture that was above corruption.
Though our financial institutions operate in a different context to the Metropolitan Police of the 1970s, we need to adopt a similar approach to appointing leaders who are 'squeaky clean'.
Indeed, let's not forget that it is taxpayer money that saved the very institutions that caused much of the chaos we are all paying do dearly for; particularly those who have lost their jobs or are forced to live on reduced income.
The trouble is, the portents for change are not good; especially for those who 'whistleblow'.
Perhaps one of the reasons that more people don't expose wrongdoing is that they fear the consequences. The case of Martin Woods which was reported in the 'In the City' section of a recent edition of Private Eye (no 1317) is instructive.
Woods, a former Scotland Yard and National Crime Squad detective, was employed in 2005 by US bank Wachovia at its London office to act as an anti-money-laundering office. In 2006 he became suspicious about activity involving euro-denominated travellers' cheques that had originated from Mexico.
Given that Woods had previous experience of being involved in Russian money laundering through the Bank of New York, he would have been pretty confident that he would enjoy total support in investigating his suspicions about the involvement of Mexican drug cartels.
In 2007 following pressure from US authorities, who has begun their own investigations into Wachovia's Mexican customers, this business was no longer routed through London. Woods suspicions seemed to be well-founded.
Woods believes that because he drew attention to his suspicions he was no longer required at Wachovia.
As Private Eye describe, Woods was subject to a disciplinary investigation for "performance failings" and, in turn, he commenced a case against Wachovia in 2008 for what he considered to be bullying and generally detrimental treatment because of his 'whistleblowing'.
The case was settled in May 2009 and Woods has become a self-employed consultant.
Woods' experience since then does not fill one with confidence despite the fact that Wachovia has been prosecuted in America for its handling of $378 billion transferred into dollar accounts from Mexican currency exchange customers.
Notably, Woods received a "herogram" from US banking regulator, Comptroller of the Currency, John Dugan who applauded his effort in exposing Wachovia.
According to Private Eye, Woods has discovered that his activities at Wachovia has resulted in him not being offered work by other UK banks. He believes that his reputation as a 'whistleblower' means that his services are not welcome.
Indeed, Woods has launched an employment tribunal case against one UK bank, to be heard next month, during which he will present evidence to show that an offer of work was withdrawn once they became aware of his whistleblowing at Wachovia.
A fuller report on the background to this case, 'How a big US bank laundered billions from Mexico's murderous drugs gangs' was written by Ed Vulliamy and published in The Observer on 3rd April 2011.
What is absolutely essential in any advanced economy such as ours is that the financial systems operate in a climate of openness and trust. We cannot have banks operating under a cloud of suspicion.
We have surely reached a strange state of affairs when the business secretary Vince Cable appears on television to berate UK banks for 'throttling' our chances of economic recovery because of what he sees as an "anti-business culture" and their "obsession with short-term profits".
Given that we, the taxpayers, have had to invest phenomenal amounts of money to save some major banks, this is somewhat peculiar if not positively annoying.
If Cable were to intervene and impose change on the banks and other financial institutions, I am convinced that this would be hugely popular; though perhaps not with some of his coalition partners.
The late seminal quality guru, Dr. W. Edwards Deming, asserted that in order to improve, you must firstly recognise that you are in crisis and secondly to be prepared to do something to create a new culture though, for example, leadership.
There is no doubt that we are in a crisis and I believe we urgently need radical leadership with honesty in our financial institutions to restore confidence.
As Stiglitz argues, we cannot afford for our prospects of economic recovery to be undermined by a lack of trust in the very organisations that supposedly exist to achieve this objective.