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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

At last……

November 14 2018

2,185 days after he was convicted of two counts of fraud by abuse of position at Southwark Crown Court on 20th November 2012 after a 10-week trial, and despite a shamelessly self-pitying and self-justifying campaign to avoid the consequences of his actions, Adoboli has finally been deported to his home country, Ghana.

The wheels of British justice grind exceedingly slow but they do – eventually – get there.

Let’s put those 2,185 days into a bit of perspective.

  • Amount of money lost by his fraudulent trading: US$2,500,000,000.  (If the sums spent by UBS on remediation and dealing with the consequences of this loss were added in, the totals would be truly eye-watering.)
  • Days spent on remand before his trial: 267
  • Days spent by my team and others working on the investigation: 438
  • Sentence: 7 years or 2,556 days
  • Time actually spent in prison following his sentence: 946

As the City of London Police said following his conviction: “This was the UK’s biggest fraud, committed by one of the most sophisticated fraudsters the City of London Police has ever come across.”  The trial judge, Mr Justice Keith, admirably summed up his character when he described him as a gambler, arrogant and in denial and said that he was: “profoundly unselfconscious” of his own failings.

But despite his masterly conduct of the trial, Mr Justice Keith did not explain in his sentencing remarks why what Adoboli did was so wrong, why fraud – of any type – is so damaging and this lacuna is perhaps symptomatic of our failure to take fraud as seriously as we should, as some other countries do.  After all, if the UK’s biggest fraud does not result in the maximum sentence, what will?

Fraud is too often seen as a victimless or somewhat technical crime or, perhaps more accurately, the victims, especially institutions, are seen as unsympathetic and partly responsible for their plight.  After all, who cares if an arrogant bank loses some money.  They are not like some naive widow conned out of her life savings.  Who gets hurt, really?

But the damage that fraud does is not the loss of money, bad as that can be.  Nor is it even the damage to reputation – and that can be very bad indeed and much more long-lasting than most think.

Fraud is damaging because it is so corrosive of the trust that is the essence of banking, that is – or should be – at the heart of any working environment, at the heart of any good relationship with colleagues, bosses, clients, the public, at the heart of any well-functioning community.  Fraud breaks those bonds of trust.  When someone is trusted and they let you down by lying, by cheating, by taking advantage, by behaving like Adoboli did, like many other fraudsters have done, real people are hurt.  Worse – the very idea of having confidence – in the institution, in your colleagues, in banking as a dependable underpinning of our society – is damaged and takes time to rebuild.  A fraudster does not just destroy their own reputation.  Their actions chip away at the reputation of everyone else in their sector.  And they make it just that bit harder for those people – however good, however hard-working, however trustworthy – to be trusted by others, by the public.

That is the real harm that fraud does.  We would do well to take it more seriously than we do.

 

Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

A Risky Business

September 16 2018

According to this survey (taken this August), only 3% of people had a very positive view of financial services, with 57% having a very or somewhat negative view.  And all this 11 years after the run on Northern Rock and a decade after the Lehman’s bankruptcy, the bailout of RBS, the Lloyds takeover of HBoS and the disappearance of venerable institutions redolent of Britain’s sober manufacturing past, such as the Bradford & Bingley Building Society.  One might have thought that a decade would have been enough for people to forget what happened.  But like an itch that continues to be scratched, banks have, right up to the present day, provided many more examples justifying customers’ perennial exasperation with financial services providers: closure of branches, endless IT problems, the continuing PPI mis-selling saga, interest rates for savers still at rock bottom, mis-selling and mis-advice over pensions.  Even the much vaunted culture change programmes embarked on by many banks don’t seem to have changed perceptions, possibly because some of the sector’s leaders have not fully appreciated that this applies to them too.

The 10-year anniversary has brought out two figures from the past to give their take on where we are now and, in so doing, they managed to compliment themselves (without seeming to, unless that was the point of the exercise) on their past successes.  The first was Gordon Brown, the Prime Minister in charge when the crisis struck and famous for having claimed in Parliament that his efforts “saved the world” or its banks, anyway.  Certainly, the efforts of his government in autumn 2008 prevented the failure of the entire British banking system.  Would it be uncharitable to consider what responsibility his government (and the previous government in which he served as Chancellor) had for the state in which banks found themselves that autumn?  Had earlier warning signals perhaps been ignored by regulators?  Still, his claim that a more fractured system of political governance might make it harder for governments to co-operate should another financial meltdown occur is well made.  It is not just within financial institutions that silos can prevent those at the top seeing the full picture; the same can happen at governmental and regulatory levels too.

And so to Bob Diamond, never shy about arguing the case for aggressive investment banks and the need to take risk, who popped up on the radio last week to tell us that we should view Barclays (which did not get government funding) very differently to RBS, which did.  Possibly a touch premature, given that the SFO trial of senior Barclays executives in relation to Barclays’ capital raising that autumn is not due to start until January 2019.  (Even Diamond’s previous arch-critic, Lord Mandelson, after his change of heart, has weighed in echoing his criticism.)  Far from being concerned about a breakdown of trust between governments (Brown’s concern) or, indeed, trust in banking, let alone the culture at Barclays or other banks in the period leading up to the crash, Diamond thinks that the changes made in the last decade have made banks “too risk averse”, that without risk, banks won’t lend, the economy won’t grow.

Both men have a point.  But they miss something which has not been much canvassed in the reams of commentary devoted to what happened a decade ago.  Regardless of how well risks are understood, regardless of how co-operative governments and regulators are, regardless of how good the rules are, regardless of how many wonderful AI developed risk management systems are used, there will never be a perfect financial system.  Or a perfect regulatory system.  Problems will always arise.  And there will be warning signs – about people, about institutions, about certain types of business.  They may not be obvious or easy to read.  As the haystack gets bigger, trying to find the needle in it becomes ever harder.  Identifying what needs to be followed up and what can be ignored takes skill and experience.  Sensing what might become serious and getting people to act before it does so takes persistence.  No-one wants to be a Cassandra, endlessly forecasting doom. Even fewer want to listen to her.

Being prepared for the next big meltdown is necessary.  But just as much effort – rather more, in fact – needs to be focused on listening to – and acting on – those warning signs, to catching problems (whether mistakes, incompetence or deliberate wrongdoing) early, when they are small, when they can be contained and resolved without too much pain or collateral damage, when they can become learning opportunities for all rather than crises to be managed.  Problems, however small, don’t just need fixing then forgetting.  They also tell you a story – about the institution, about the people in it, about how business is done.  If we are to avoid the inevitable recitation, after every scandal, of the numerous opportunities when the issue might have been identified, acted on and stopped – or mitigated, it is a story which needs to be listened to.

After all, Cassandra turned out to be right.

 

 

Photo by Lubo Minar on Unsplash