Rein in top bankers with monetary penalties

WHAT to do about failing banks and the bankers who pushed them over the edge is still making headlines.

The latest to get in on the act is the doyen of investors, Warren Buffett of Berkshire Hathaway.

He told Fox television yesterday that the best way to keep banks in their place is to make bank chief executives wholly responsible.

Mr Buffett was responding to moves by US President Barack Obama to curb risk-taking in US banks.

In his view defining risk is a tricky business, but one way of keeping high rollers in check is to ensure they pay a heavy price if their banks fail. In his world, they should walk away without a penny to their name, spouses included

“If I was running things, if a bank had to go to the government for help, the CEO and his wife would forfeit all their net worth,” he said.

That kind of stricture might work well here too.

In the case of RBS, its former boss Fred Goodwin, knighted for his services to British banking, walked away with a pension worth Stg£700,000 a year despite his bank having to be rescued by the British government after losses of over €24 billion in 2008.

The Buffett motto presupposes that most of the top bankers internationally knew the dangerous game they were engaged in before the credit crunch scuttled the global economy.

The evidence suggests not one of them did.

Actions by bankers since the bailouts suggest they live in a world where they set the rules and where they are not accountable to the outside world.

It can be argued, therefore, that putting such a high penalty on bankers might not be sufficient to ensure this madness is never repeated. New guidelines and tough regulations that can be enforced would also have to form part of any new strategy.

Bankers are a tough bunch to police. They should have a supporting role to play in economies, not a leading one as happened during the boom. They fed the boom, which ought never to have been allowed to happen.

Even after the catastrophe the RBS board was still proposing £1.5bn bonuses for 2008 after it posted a British corporate record loss of £24.1bn for the year.

Mr Buffett says exacting a high price on those at the top is the only way to go.

Indeed if the top bankers here were made to face such tough sanctions, there might have been a bit more restraint during the boom years, but instead they went on to account for 25% of the economy.

It’s very difficult to maintain balance or perspective in that kind of heady environment and the evidence that unfolded about Anglo and the other banks is bearing out that point. What perplexed many was how long it took for the penny to drop within banks.

AIB was particularly slow on the uptake and it may need anything up to €15bn in further capital if it is to survive as a separate entity.

To a degree that’s the nature of a bubble and those caught up in it find it very difficult to see beyond it.

Internationally they still insist that big bonuses have to be paid and have lost little of the pomposity that put the banks on their knees.

It is far from clear if any of the bankers under investigation here will ever face any real sanctions under the law for their time in office. It may be they broke no laws.

In that sense, a hit list of sanctions against bankers who run their banks into trouble might be the way forward.

Those at the top would have to agree to the penalty clauses before taking on top jobs in the sector. It might make good sense also to impose pretty tough monetary penalties on chairmen and financial controllers.

That kind of regime might dramatically change the tone of discussions at board meetings and remind those in charge that they can and will be held accountable.

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