Posts Tagged: conflicts of interest
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.
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?