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:
- 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.
- 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.