March 31 2019
In the week in which Lyft, a company which has never made a profit, whose losses rose by 32% to nearly one billion in 2018 and which, according to its management, will not make a profit in the near-term, was listed with an initial valuation of $2.3 billion with its shares rising by 8.7% on the first day (giving it a market capitalisation of $22.4 billion, almost as much as Chrysler), we learnt a bit more about two other former stars of the business world.
First, London Capital & Finance (LCF). Perhaps not a star but starry enough – at least superficially – to persuade about 12,000 unsophisticated ordinary savers to put £230 million of their savings into fixed-rate bonds (which they thought eligible for ISAs) providing returns well above those available elsewhere. In reality, the bonds were high risk and not eligible for ISAs, were not regulated investments and the money went into a number of ventures run by persons connected to those behind LCF. The administrators are now, inevitably, probing what happened and where the money went. But this week investors were told that the administrators were having difficulty locating the assets allegedly acquired with the money, the chances of there being any recovery were low and, to add insult to injury, while investors lost money “through no fault of their own”, there was no basis for any compensation from either the FCA or the FSCS. The investors fell into the gaps between firms regulated to provide financial advice, which LCF was, and firms regulated to sell bonds, which LCF was not.
The moral of this sad story is an old one: if something looks too good to be true, stay away.
Still, those savers might well wonder what one of the FCA’s statutory objectives – protecting consumers – actually means when LCF was able to operate in the way it did in full view of the regulators without anyone taking any effective action to protect those consumers. The plethora of inquiries now taking place – by administrators, the SFO, the National Audit Office and possibly also the Financial Reporting Council – are not likely to provide those savers with much comfort.
Now to Theranos– a company which no longer exists but which is having a lucrative after-life in a book, documentary, podcast and rumoured Hollywood film. Its story is now well-known: a student leaves Stanford with a brilliant idea which will revolutionize health care (no more nasty needles taking blood – just a teeny pinprick), raises oodles and oodles of money, has a Board consisting of the great and the good (Dr Kissinger, George Schultz), appears on stage with Bill Clinton, is co-opted onto an advisory panel by President Obama, and is fêted as one of the first and youngest and prettiest female Silicon Valley billionaires. What could possibly go wrong?
Well, pretty much the most important thing: the product Theranos was selling did not work. Having an idea is great. Selling an idea knowing that the reality does not match it: not so great. Criminal charges have been laid. We will see whether this was self-delusion and a failed business or something very much worse. Still, one of the striking facts which has come out is that a lot of very experienced, very rich business people – people as far removed from ordinary savers as it is possible to be – failed to do the most elementary due diligence or ask basic questions, not even for an audited financial statement.
Maybe they were happy to take a risk without more. Or maybe, like those hopeful savers putting their money and hopes into LCF, they believed in what they hoped would be true, they believed the story, ignored the facts and/or didn’t ask obvious questions. Any similarities to investors in Lyft are, one hopes, purely coincidental.
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.
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.