Bankers in sackcloth and ashes


Bankers in sackcloth and ashes

Our bankers and some of their economists have been helping the political policemen and policewomen with their inquiries in recent weeks.

Happily for them, they have not been dragged to the basement for an encounter with a couple of sweaty, heavy gardaí, nor did they find themselves in a stuffy courtroom being filleted by a sharp-tongued senior counsel under the sceptical gaze of a judge, but, nevertheless, it cannot have been a particularly pleasant experience.

The highlight to date has been the encounter outside the precincts of Leinster House when that great retired grandee from Frankfurt, the French financial nobleman Jean-Claude Trichet, encountered representatives of the lower orders.

His astonishment at some of the questioning told all one wants to know about just how out of touch top European bureaucrats are with the citizenry.

At this point, it is worth the while paying tribute to the departing Patrick Honohan, a man who kept the ship steady in extremely trying times and someone who always treated his listening public with due respect.

So what have we learned to date from the banking inquiry? Its chair, Labour TD Ciarán Lynch, seems able and good-humoured. Some of the committee members could think more carefully when it comes to their choice of questions, which seemed at times to stray well away from the point.

Does it really matter a damn, in the context of the inquiry, how much a particular bank spends on consultants? We all know at this point that our bankers got too close to property developers. That is a given, yet too much time has been spent labouring this point. The real question yet to be addressed is, what was it about the corporate culture of these institutions that resulted in these cosy, ultimately disastrous one-way relationships?

Did our top bankers and leaders get too cosy with these risk takers? Of course, they did, but why did they allow this situation to develop where the commercial tail in effect wagged the financier dog?

Former Bank of Ireland group chief executive Brian Goggin certainly impressed with his knowledge of the intricacies of banking, but knowledge of the engine does not necessarily lead to safer driving.

It would appear that Mr Goggin, nevertheless, may have played his part in saving his institution from even greater disaster, particularly with certain board members pressing him to go hell for leather for greater market share.

Eugene Sheehy revealed himself as a modest individual, genuinely shocked at what he had helped to bring about, but the performance of his predecessor as AIB boss, Michael Buckley, was more puzzling. Self-exculpation appeared to be the order of the day.

Are some of these people in denial? One suspects that they are.

That our financial and political elite parted company with reality some time around 2002 or thereabouts is pretty much a given. This was helped in no small part by our libel laws which favour at all costs the preservation of the reputations of the powerful over the objective of securing healthy, open investigation and discussion.

Reckless, deluded, and unscrupulous leaders were able to ensure their dodgy figures and strategies were never subjected to real examination. Transparency in this key area was left lying, trampled in the dust.

Recently, the president and chief executive of the Federal Bank of New York, William Dudley, delivered an important speech at a workshop on culture and behaviour in the financial services industry. According to Mr Dudley, “in addition to a strong compliance function, firms need to foster an environment that rewards the free exchange of ideas and views. Individuals should feel that they can raise a concern and have confidence that issues will be escalated and fully considered.”

He continues: “This is a critical element — a firm doesn’t just have to have the right rules and procedures in place. It needs to have the right culture to ensure that the procedures are followed.”

The central banker is calling on organisations to develop a comprehensive culture survey aimed at securing feedback from employees. It is interesting that eight years after the financial crisis began to rear its ugly head, senior officials still have to make such calls.

Some innovations are occurring. In the UK last year, the Banking Standards Review Council was established. This body is headed up by Richard Lambert, a former editor of the Financial Times and director of the Confederation of British Industry. Certainly, the mood out there is militant.

According to the Cass Business School, the number of complaints about banks to the Financial Ombudsman service has risen from around 75,000 in 2008-9 to over 400,000 in 2013.

At long last Ireland’s own Financial Services Ombudman has been given the power to name and shame erring institutions. This job has been filled by Bill Prasifka, whose term of office is now ending. Mr Prasifka pressed continuously for these powers.

Reform may be in the air but achieving cultural change could be a long and drawn out business. According to Professor Andre Spicer of the Cass Business School, speaking to the Financial Times, “cultural change initiatives especially in the large institutions remain fragile. Senior leaders are committed to these initiatives and progress has been made. However, there is widespread concern that the message could get lost in the middle of these large institutions. Some customers facing employees tell us that they still feel under significant pressure to sell [financial products].”

The standards review body aims to revamp banker conduct. However, teaching old dogs new tricks can prove an uphill struggle.

But they must be taught. As Mr Dudley puts it: “Although cultural and ethical problems are not unique to the financial industry, financial firms are different. They play a key role in allocating scarce capital and exerting market discipline throughout a complex global economy.”

He says that it really is all down to “the tone at the top, the example set by senior managers”.

“Culture reflects the prevailing attitudes and behaviour within a firm. It is how people react not only to black and white, but to various shades of grey. Like a gentle breeze, culture may be hard to see, but you can feel it.”

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