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Ask Not For Whom The Bell Tolls

January 21 2019

The best single essay on financial misbehaviour was written not by a journalist, academic or former trader, but by a novelist and 25 years ago: The Deficit Millionaires by Julian Barnes, that most pointillist and French of English writers.  It is about Lloyds of London, the huge losses it suffered in the early 1990’s and how trusting Names slowly realised that their faith in a long-standing and well-established institution was utterly misplaced.  Lloyds had been around for ever.  It was part of the City’s furniture.  And it was insurance, after all.  How boring is that. How could anything possibly go wrong?

Well, with exquisite care and sympathy and the precision of a surgeon’s scalpel, Barnes shows us how.  And the story is a surprisingly familiar one.

  • A novel but complicated instrument designed to reduce risk but instead increasing it – the London Market Excess, or the spiral of reinsurance.  “Making a turn” – in the spiral – “was the easiest way to make money” one underwriter said.”
  • Greed – “If you are making a good living, if you have self-regulation, if you are outside exchange control, it’s human nature to get greedier and greedier and greedier”.
  • The market’s rapid expansion in a short period of time.  There was a near-ten-fold increase in the number of Names in 14 years, most of them trusting amateurs and all looking for insurance to underwrite.
  • A lack of due diligence, a suspension of critical faculties, a lack of scepticism coupled with an all too human willingness to believe in the promises of a no risk investment, all wrapped up in a flattering appeal to vanity.
  • A  deeply cynical – and possibly fraudulent – approach by the professionals to those who joined (“If God had not meant them to be sheared, he would not have made them sheep.”) 
  • Relaxation of the rules and lax monitoring of those that existed.
  • The undisclosed conflicts of interest – recruiters were paid a fee for each Name who joined.
  • A lack of transparency – it was Lloyds insiders rather than external members who got onto the best managed, low risk and least spivvy syndicates, justified by the then Chief Executive thus – “In any activity, the professionals will know more than the others.”
  • The breakdown of trust – what Barnes describes as the “tickle of fraud“, the realisation that the belief in “an honourable society, operating on trust, on shared values” was a chimera.  Or as one Name put it more bluntly, “You know, trust, honour, and then to find in such an august body a bunch of craven crooks”.
  • The realisation, far too late, that private warnings were given about some of the risks and unacceptable/criminal behaviour but these were ignored or not shared with those who ought to have been told.
  • The turning of blind eyes to unacceptable/negligent and/or criminal behaviour by a remarkable cast of shameless rogues during the 1980’s, even when the latter were the subject of legal action.
  • The failed institution’s repeated insistence that any problems were only the result of that well-worn old favourite: one or two rotten apples, despite one of those rotten apples being a Chairman of Lloyds.
  • The determined focus by new management only on its new procedures and processes and business plans for the future in the hope that a veil would be cast over the past, without any unseemly digging into it.
  • The eventual realisation by the institution that, as its deputy Chairman, put it, for the previous twenty years it had lacked “total integrity” and “strong government“.

Even the modern new building housing the salvaged and totemic Lutine Bell and built by a famous “name” architect is part of the story.

Barnes eloquently shows how an institution believed to be “the highest name of honesty“, seen as part of a certain sort of honourable Englishness, around for three hundred and five years, a stalwart of the City, selling its services around the world, as venerable as the Bank of England and thought to be as safe, came to be seen, harshly but accurately, as “a cesspit of dishonesty“.

If only this had been published more widely than in a US publication and, later, a book of essays.  If only we had paid more attention.  If only we had learnt the lessons that were there to be learnt.

Everything that went wrong in the run up to the near collapse of the Lloyds insurance market happened again two decades later and led to the financial crash 10 years ago, even with the benefit of external regulation and control.  Indeed, pretty much the same things happened in the lead in to most financial scandals going back hundreds of years.

And, human nature being what it is, it’s a pretty safe bet that a version of all or some of these will happen the next time, may indeed be happening now.  The same behaviours will once again come under the spotlight when the the next scandal becomes known, with its inevitable backing chorus.  

Why didn’t anyone see?  

Why did no-one ask the obvious questions?  

Why did no-one listen to the warnings?  

Why, oh why didn’t anyone act?

As Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee put it in a different context“it has been striking how some the issues which arose in [2005 and 2013] have also been seen as having been a factor in 2017.  We have previously made recommendations in these areas, yet they do not appear to have been acted on.”

Scepticism.  Curiosity.  Asking tough questions.  Learning lessons from previous events.  Their absence is a regular feature of many incidents of misconduct, many crises, both large and small.

But ultimately, in finance, as in other sectors, it is those old-fashioned concepts – trustworthiness, integrity, honourable dealing – which remain as essential in 2019, and years to come, as they have always been.

 

Photo by Boris Stefanik on Unsplash

Financial Dramas

December 31 2018

2018 has been a year for anniversaries, September bringing forth a slew of articles about the financial crash 10 years on and a number of books by learned professors (to add to the ones already written about the fall of individual institutions) seeking to make sense of it all.  See, for instance, Adam Tooze’s “Crashed: How a Decade of Financial Crises Changed the World”.

But despite the colourful characters, scandalous activities and stories aplenty, it is curious that in the last decade novelists and playwrights have largely shied away from writing about the world of finance.  It is an odd omission.  19th century writers were much less shy: see William Thackeray’s Vanity Fair with its wonderfully sardonic and cynical and oh so apposite to our times take on a world where “everyone is striving for what is not worth having“.  Or Balzac with his tales of how money – having it, not having it, wanting more of it – corrodes personal relationships.  And not forgetting our very own Dickens, whose every novel is stuffed with characters for whom debt was an ever-present – and often malign – reality.  Mr Micawber stands as an object lesson to those who think that living beyond your means indefinitely is sustainable.

There have been a few attempts to make a drama out of a crisis: Caryl Churchill’s expletive-ridden “Serious Money”, written in 1987, just after an earlier stock market crash (and featuring the International Tin Council litigation, the very first case I was involved in as a junior solicitor) was one of the earliest.   Not a play likely to feature in the repertoire of amateur dramatic societies, given its colourful language.

A few years later “Capital City” was a TV series based on the lives and loves of City traders in the late 1980’s when Britain learnt to fall in love with making Loadsamoney, as much and as fast as possible and with precious few scruples about how it was done.  This was the era of the Guinness affair and Robert Maxwell and BCCI.  Enough larger than life characters and juicy stories and morality tales there for even the most mathematically challenged writer.  But even that great State of the Nation playwright, David Hare, whose plays in the 1990’s: “Pravda” (journalism), “Racing Demon” (the Church of England), “Murmuring Judges” (the law) and “The Absence of War” (the Labour Party) sought to take the moral temperature of contemporary Britain and its institutions, ignored the tumultuous changes in the world of finance and how they were changing British society more radically than even the most provocative newspaper or campaigning politician.

Lucy Prebble’s “Enron” in 2009 succeeded in London but failed in NY.  More recently, the BBC’s McMafia series focused on Russian money laundering.  John Lanchester’s 2012 novel, “Capital”, was set around the time of the 2008 crash but mainly showed the mysterious alchemy whereby ordinary London homes turned into money-making machines for those lucky enough to acquire them when they were, well, just houses. Sebastian Faulks’s “A Week in December” from 2009 had as one of its main characters someone rumoured to have been based on a well-known – and once successful – trader and featured a naive junior FSA regulator (the resemblance being purely coincidental in the latter case, one assumes).  But whatever the books’ other merits, the characterisation of the bankers, traders and regulators was cartoonish and one-dimensional.

Lanchester’s “Whoops: Why Everyone Owes Everyone and No One Can Pay” was a better attempt to understand the mysterious world of finance.  As was the US documentary “Inside Job”.  Maybe only Michael Lewis has been able to present the human stories present in the financial world in a way which feels like fiction.  Perhaps the dramatisation of real life events (“The Big Short” and Massini’s “The Lehman Trilogy”) is the only way to make sense of this world.  Perhaps.

It is too easy to think that no-one will understand – or care – about the technicalities and complexities and arcane language of modern finance, let alone about the people whose lives revolve around it.  A pity if so.  It is not the numbers which matter but the instincts, proclivities and emotions – what Keynes called “animal spirits” – which determine what people do.  There is little that is more emotional than people’s behaviour around money.

If the range of human behaviour on show in the run up to, during and after any financial scandal is not a subject for writers, it is hard to know what is.  All human life is there, after all.

 

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

October 16 2018

Some 5 years after the Parliamentary Commission’s withering report on banking culture, it is the House of Commons itself – its MPs, senior management and staff – who face their own brutal and shocking appraisal.  The disgraceful and, in some cases, criminal conduct by some of them and their collective failure to deal, legally or adequately or at all, with bullying and harassment of junior staff, particularly women, by senior staff and MPs is laid bare in this report by retired judge, Dame Laura Cox.

It would perhaps not have been politic of those bankers – quizzed by the Parliamentary Commission about their failure to raise concerns about the misbehaviour of fellow traders and bankers – to have pointed out to their inquisitors that the number of MPs who blew the whistle on fellow MPs who broke the expenses rules and, in some cases, committed fraud was the grand total of zero.  (It would though have been hugely enjoyable for fans of sanctimonious humbug.) Those in the financial sector who had to take the MPs’ justified criticisms can perhaps now enjoy a touch of schadenfreude when they read Cox describe the omertà that many MPs practice in respect of bad conduct by one of their number” and that “Members turn a blind eye to dishonourable behaviour by others”. 

But the report goes further.   Despite the 1995 Nolan Committee report  on Standards in Public Life making it clear that MPs had to display the highest standards and that “it is essential for public confidence that they they should be seen to do so”, it seems – and who could possibly have foreseen this? – that self-regulation doesn’t work.   The Cox report describes an entrenched culture “cascading from the top down, of deference, subservience, acquiescence and silence, in which bullying and sexual harassment have been able to thrive and have long been tolerated and concealed.”  Processes and policies, no matter what fluffy names they are given (Cox is particularly critical of the “Valuing Others” policy) are described as not fit for purpose and not even compliant with existing laws on harassment and discrimination, let alone best practice.  Investigations are inadequate and carried out by amateurs.  Confidentiality is not respected, staff are fearful and unsupported and retaliation – or threats of it – are common.

The report makes for grim reading.  Even grimmer in the two days since its publication has been the defensive reaction of MPs and senior staff at the Commons at the very idea of having to take action beyond the token.  The House of Commons may consider itself a special case though, as Cox acidly points out, while “Members of Parliament are elected representatives…their mandate does not entitle them to bully or harass those who are employed….to support and assist them.”

But this report has much from which every employer, from senior managers down, and not just HR Departments, can learn.  In an era of #MeToo, of younger generations being unwilling (rightly) to put up with boorish (at best) and criminal (at worst) behaviour in the workplace, when an unhappy employee can create unwelcome publicity and force companies to take action, all organisations can learn from the failures so forensically dissected in this report.   It is not just Parliament which is a stressful workplace.  All workplaces are likely to face these problems to a greater or lesser extent and it is no easy task trying to handle matters which can range from someone being insensitive and impolite, via bullying, leering, insulting remarks all the way to actions which may amount to serious crimes.

Three points in particular are worth highlighting:

  • “devotion to process and language rather than to real effectiveness” is a waste of time.  Procedures and rules are necessary but never sufficient.  They are merely proof of the importance with which the issue is viewed.  But the real test of whether you have the right policies in place is whether your employees trust you to investigate properly and act on findings, no matter who is involved.  Without that trust even the best written procedures are mere will 0′ the wisps.
  • Those at the top have to lead by example.  In yesterday’s radio interview  Dame Laura posited three questions which those at the top should ask themselves when having to manage cultural change:
    • “Do I understand that radical change is needed?”
    • “Can I deliver that change?
    • “Will staff have confidence that I can deliver that change?”  Answering that third question honestly requires a level of self-knowledge and courage that is not as common as it should be.
  • Codes of Conduct are a fancy way of reminding people that good manners, politeness and civility matter.  At their heart, good manners are about being kind to others (and kindness is a much underrated virtue).   Employees, managers, colleagues, the temporary and contracting staff who do the myriad tasks which keep a workplace going, however senior or junior, are human beings, not simply resources.  Politeness and thoughtfulness to those around us cost nothing, can help mitigate even the most stressful of jobs and are the bare minimum which should be expected of – and for – all staff.

And, finally, not for the first – and certainly not for the last – time, if a problem happens, don’t ignore it.  “This cycle of repeatedly reacting to crises only after they have developed into crises, and sometimes only after unwelcome publicity, is a perilous approach to adopt for any organisation, but it is completely hopeless for a place of work.”

As for the House of Commons, if it really is serious about changing its culture, it needs to realise – as others have – that this is the work of years, not weeks or months, and is a task which is never finished.

 

Photo by Gabriel Matula on Unsplash