Seeing the bigger picture
May 13 2018
Even regulators can sometimes fail to see the wood for the trees. In highlighting Mr Staley’s conflict of interest when he became aware of the whistleblower’s letter against an employee he had hired, the regulators barely scratched the surface of a wider issue. It was not just his failure to recognise that it was his conflict of interest which made it wrong for him to involve himself at all in the whistleblowing process. Rather, it is that he did not seem to understand (or if he did, he did not let this understanding guide his actions) the crucial importance of both knowing when there was an actual or potential conflict of interest and knowing how to avoid it or minimise it.
This is critical to more than just whistleblowing.
At a time when the all-encompassing financial institution is pretty much the norm, conflicts of interest policies are essential – to address conflicts between firms and their clients, between clients, between employees and the firm, employees and clients etc etc. But above all they are essential because they seek to address the very problem caused by the existence of financial behemoths. Their very size and and the scope of their activities create all sorts of actual and potential conflicts of interest which, if not properly recognised and managed, risk damaging the trust which is essential to the survival and success of a financial institution, indeed of the financial sector as a whole.
One of the ironies of that Big Bang 21 years ago is that, in enabling the abolition of the inefficiencies of all those small brokers, jobbers and the rest (inefficiencies which were believed to hold the industry back) through their mergers and takeovers by large (mostly) US banks, it led to the recreation on a massive scale and in enhanced form of all sorts of new conflicts and issues around trust, necessitating ever larger – and increasingly complex – rulebooks.
The regulators have been playing Whack-A-Mole with wrongdoers ever since.
So it is not a surprise that a failure to recognise and/or a determination to ignore conflicts of interest have been at the heart of some of the worst scandals of recent years: split cap investment trusts, market manipulation, PPI and pensions mis-selling, LIBOR, FX, front-running and so, dismally, on. All the more important, therefore, for those at the top to understand why managing conflicts of interest properly is at the heart of establishing and maintaining trust in their institution – and the whole sector.
Note too the reference to Mr Staley being concerned that his authority to make hiring decisions was being undermined by the whistleblowing allegation. There is the authentically aggrieved tone of the senior man unused to not getting his own way. Let’s not be too hard on him though. He is not the only person in power to have reacted thus to any challenge, though possibly the first to have this made public in such circumstances. And yet the hiring process is the first – and often – best collective opportunity to decide whether this person is right for this firm in this role. A whistleblowing provides an opportunity for such a challenge, as does the vetting process. The latter risks being seen as a bureaucratic step to be got through, rather than an opportunity for proper scrutiny, if people feel that the decision is already a done deal and any questioning of it unwelcome.
After a year long investigation a pity that the regulators’ decision did not consider these points.
Still, no reason for the industry not to take the wider view about the lessons to be learned from this affair. Will its leaders do so? Or will they breathe a sigh of relief, make some process changes, create a few more reports but largely carry on much as before?