Our banks are not merely out of control. They’re beyond control
Jailing reckless bankers is a dangerously incomplete solution. The market is bust. Institutions that are too big to fail are too big to exist
Wednesday 19 June 2013
Seeing the British establishment struggle with the financial sector is like watching an alcoholic who still resists the idea that something drastic needs to happen for him to turn his life around. Until 2008 there was denial over what finance had become. When a series of bank failures made this impossible, there was widespread anger, leading to the public humiliation of symbolic figures. But the scandals kept coming, and so we entered stage three – what therapists call “bargaining”. A broad section of the political class now recognises the need for change but remains unable to see the necessity of a fundamental overhaul. Instead it offers fixes and patches, from tiny increases in leverage ratios to bonus clawbacks and “electrified ring fences”.
Today’s report by the parliamentary commission on banking standards (to which I gave evidence) is a perfect example of this tendency to fight the symptoms while keeping the dysfunctional system itself intact. The commission, set up after last year’s Libor scandal, identifies all the structural problems and nails the fundamental flaw in finance today: “Too many bankers, especially at the most senior levels, have operated in an environment with insufficient personal responsibility.” Indeed, as they like to say in the City, running a mega-bank these days is like “Catholicism without a hell”, or “playing russian roulette with someone else’s head”.
In response, the commission proposes jailing reckless bankers. Restoring the link between risk, reward and responsibility is a crucial step towards a robust and stable financial sector. But the report’s focus on individual responsibility is also dangerously incomplete because it implies that the sector is merely out of control. This plays into the narrative that things can be fixed by tweaking rules and realigning incentives; in other words, by bargaining.
In reality the financial sector is not out of control. It’s beyond control. During the past two years I have interviewed almost 200 people working in finance in London: “front office” bankers with telephone-number bonuses as well as those in “risk and compliance” who are meant to stop them being reckless. I have also spoken to many internal and external accountants, lawyers and consultants.