News

Caveat Emptor

January 23 2020

One of the saddest aspects of the One Coin scam perpetrated by the now missing Dr Ruja Ignatova is how unsophisticated (and, indeed, poor) savers in African countries were specifically targeted using the claim that this wonderful new cryptocurrency technology would bring easy finance (and all its many advantages) to the unbanked. OneCoin was presented as practically a social service and a revolution in finance which would transform the prospects of those whom traditional finance providers had ignored.

All too good to be true?

Of course. And what this meant in practice for those believing these claims can be heard here in the BBC’s radio documentary – The Missing Cryptoqueen. What it also meant for those involved in handling the money she made was rather more traditional – convictions for fraud and money-laundering.

Investors believed what they hoped was true and failed to ask some basic and obvious questions. If there was no blockchain how could this new currency really be a cryptocurrency? And what was the track record of the person behind it? If they had, they might have learnt that there was no blockchain and that Dr Ignatova had form, having received in 2016 a suspended sentence and fine from a German court for her role in relation to a German metallurgical factory taken over by her, asset stripped and then left to go bankrupt in 2009.

Past performance can sometimes be a guide to the future, it seems.

So what might an investor make of an opportunity to invest in a new venture which will:-

  • Package new and existing mortgages into securities to be sold to investors
  • The mortgages to be sold to people who have a low uptake of these products, preferring to use their savings to buy land and build property
  • In a country – Ghana – with high interest rates and a very recent banking crisis, which resulted in 7 Ghanaian banks collapsing
  • On the basis of a study, whose authors have not been revealed, which apparently states that there are plenty of people able to afford a $50,000 mortgage among the 9 million Ghanaians earning more than $11 a day (a munificent annual income of $4,015)
  • Promoted by a convicted fraudster (responsible for the UK’s biggest fraud). Yes, Kweku Adoboli is back (though this time it is the economy of Ghana he plans to grow and the balance sheets of (presumably) the remaining Ghanaian banks he wants to expand)
  • Who declines to say who his business partners are
  • But expects banks to be shareholders in the new venture (assuming actual and potential conflicts of interest can be properly managed)
  • And who is still being economical with the actualité of the reasons why he was convicted and imprisoned.

But it is good to see that he has developed a sense of humour – if this quote is genuine: “The day when I deliver my first profit to someone, that will be a good day.”

The injunction “Let the buyer beware” is as sound as ever.

 

Back to Basics

July 30 2019

Ever since the financial crisis started there has been a plethora of explanations about why traders and bankers behaved as they did.  Some have been purely descriptive: what happened and when, allowing us to marvel at the folly of it all, at least in hindsight.  At the time these clever financiers were praised by pretty much everyone from Chancellors down. There were very few pointing out at the time that the Emperor had no clothes.

But increasingly there have been attempts to use the insights gleaned from other disciplines to explain why what happened in the way it did. The latest neuroscientific findings were used to describe the biology of boom and bust (The Hour Between Dog and Wolf, for instance). Behavioural economics has had its say, as has nudge theory. Rather than nudging people to behave well, all the payment and reward incentives nudged financiers into doing what suited them financially irrespective of the effect on the customer and no matter what the expressed good intentions of the firm were. Goodness! Whoever could have predicted that, without a theory to explain it.

Psychologists have had their say, of course, though only a cynic might wonder about how much actual knowledge about the realities of life in the financial sector they have. No matter: all could opine merrily on the importance of culture in finance and on all the wonderful insights that these disciplines could bring to those seeking to manage and regulate the financial sector.

And now the anthropologists have got in on the act, as in this article by Gillian Tett. In it she points out how anthropologists have tried to analyse the cultural patterns, the rituals and symbols, even the words people use in finance to understand what was going on under the surface. In truth, the insights brought by anthropologists (at least as described here) are pretty obvious rather than thought-provoking; the article does not need them to be worth reading.

What is interesting, though, is how commentators on finance and perhaps also regulators are, perhaps unconsciously, making the same mistake as many of those traders and bankers. They are over-complicating, coming up with all sorts of theories and hypotheses apparently grounded in science or other social studies, described and interpreted by experts, using technical language to describe common human behaviours. Just as too many traders developed over-complicated products which they only half-understood and managers kidded themselves into believing that they had found a foolproof solution to valuation or risk management or any of the other difficult tasks they had, so there is a risk of developing overly complex explanations for why so many people behaved so stupidly or worse. The risk is that the more complex the explanation, the more people feel that it is all too difficult really to do anything about it or that this is something best left to the culture specialists, psychologists and other “ologists“.

Keep it simple might be the motto. In the end, by whatever means the conclusions are reached, what everyone in finance needs to remember is this:-

  1. Trust is at the heart of finance.
  2. Everyone in a financial institution is, in one way or another, managing risk.  There is no such thing as a risk-free product or institution.  Or, indeed, individual.  Understanding the risk you are running and managing it properly is what every bank, every employee in a bank, every customer of a bank, every shareholder in a bank, every investor in a financial product and every regulator of a bank is doing.  Or ought to be doing.
  3. Understanding properly is hard work.  There is no magic bullet, algorithm, theory, process, spreadsheet, AI or killer piece of management information which will do it for you. Thinking is often required.
  4. There is no way of eliminating risk.  Mitigating and minimising it: yes.  Eliminating it: no.  If anyone says otherwise (and much of the financial crisis was caused as a result of clever people thinking they had done just this and learning, painfully, that they hadn’t) they’re a charlatan or worse.
  5. Human beings, even clever ones (particularly them, it sometimes seems) do not behave rationally around money. Money and emotions are bosom pals. As any decent novelist or lawyer dealing with divorces or wills will tell you.  The “animal spirits” Keynes described do not just apply to market participants but to all of us.
  6. Managing people, understanding them, motivating them, inspiring and leading them, teaching them, setting them a good example, setting them high expectations and making it clear what the boundaries are, what behaviour will not be accepted, what crosses the line, helping them get past their frailties, working effectively with them is hard work, the hardest work anyone ever has to do.  And by far the most valuable – and rewarding.
  7. Finance is there to serve others, not itself.  It is a means to an end and the moment it (and the people in it) start thinking of themselves as indispensable, as set apart from the society they are part of, as entitled to special consideration and immunity from challenge is the moment when hubris sets in.  Nemesis will surely follow.

 

Photo by Lesly Derksen on Unsplash

Here We Go Again

February 28 2019

One of the financial sector’s characteristics is a short memory.  After about 5-7 years memories, particularly of tough times, begin to fade. New joiners bring their enthusiasm and keenness to do new deals, develop new structures, explore new possibilities. Blockchains, ever more complex algorithms, AI, new paradigms: all are being created and expanded. The future’s exciting. So the surfeit of scandals which came to light following the financial crisis a decade ago are beginning to sound like stories from a forgotten age, interesting but no longer really relevant to now, let alone the bright new future.

And then, from the other side of the world, comes this – a searing report (a Royal Commission, no less) into misbehaviour in Australian banks, to remind us, once again, that – in the words of an official with the US’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network back in 2013 – “large amounts of money sometimes bring out the worst in people.”

(As an Australian might put it: “You don’t say!”)

The report followed a year-long public inquiry into the culture and practices within Australian banking and revealed shocking, widespread and systemic examples of the sort of misbehaviour with which we have become so familiar.

  • Rewards for misconduct: the focus of all the institutions, whether banks, mortgage brokers, insurance firms, intermediaries was on selling, as much as possible for as high a fee as possible, regardless whether this was in the customer’s best interests.  In some cases, non-existent services were provided to dead people for years.
  • It will come as no surprise that this arose from badly skewed incentives. Or greed, of both the individuals and the institutions, as the Report says, bluntly and refreshingly.  
  • Firms abused their superior knowledge to mislead and defraud customers.  Conflicts of interest were ignored.  Individuals did what they could not what they should.
  • When customers complained, staff were trained to lie to them, even when compensation was paid; deliberate actions were conveniently and misleadingly described as an “administrative error”.
  • Firms lied to and misled regulators, often for years on end.  Nor were these the actions of junior staff but of senior management who felt no compunction about noting down in internal correspondence how to keep information from regulators and prevent any proper scrutiny of their actions.
  • Regulators were weak and did not hold those who misbehaved to account, even when they became aware of them.

500 pages set out in blistering detail a sorry tale of greed, fraud, lies, poor leadership, contempt for customers and a systematically rotten culture.  The usual action is, of course, now being taken: resignations, new leadership, building a good culture, training, new legislation, enforcement, litigation and so forth. 

Two points in particular are worth noting:

  1. These scandals did not happen in investment banking but in retail institutions, those dealing every day with ordinary consumers, the very people who need trustworthy and reliable financial services, who had a right to trust their providers and who were so badly let down.
  2. The banking sector in Australia is one of the most profitable in the world: 2.9% of Australia’s GDP.  Compare this to the US share of 1.2% and 0.9% in the UK.  The pre-tax profits of Australia’s banks are 6thin the world even though it is only the world’s 13th largest economy and its population only 25 million.  Little wonder that they thought they could do no wrong.

When sectors / institutions start thinking of themselves as indispensable (“look at our profits, our tax revenues”), when finance forgets that it is a service industry, there to serve others not itself, when banking is seen as a product to be sold rather than as a long-term relationship to be nurtured, then hubris and the sorts of behaviours seen in Australia, as well as elsewhere, will happen.  

The Australian report is a salutary reminder that the old stories still have much to teach us.  

Photo by Jamie Davies on Unsplash