28/12/2012 by Don Quijones
Imagine seeing the above headline splashed across the front page of your daily newspaper. It’s not easy, is it? That’s probably because we live in a time when individual conscience or, for that matter, basic morality have become, at best, an unnecessary cost, and, at worst, an impermissible hindrance to business practice in today’s financial sector.
Clearly, the idea that the CEO of a too-big-to-fail bank might one day rediscover his (after all, all bank CEOs are male) conscience belongs firmly in the realms of fantasy. But what is Christmas if not a time of magic and myth – at least for the world’s billion-plus strong Christian community (of which, as an agnostic Anglican, I am an honorary member)?
It is in this festive spirit that I invite you to suspend belief for a moment, and imagine, if you will, a world where magic happens and bad men see the light and mend the errors of their ways. Try picturing the following scene:
A balding, bespectacled, middle-aged man of average height and build sits at a mahogany desk in a study that exudes both elegance and refinement. By his side is an untouched glass of fine single malt. Given his smart but wholly unremarkable appearance, the man could pass for an accountant, a tax lawyer, even a driving instructor, but is in actual fact the CEO of one of the world’s largest banks.
Christmas has come and gone and the beginning of a new year awaits. The man, alone in his gargantuan luxury pad, barely moves but just stares at the opposite wall, his vision fixed on a point far beyond the plaster and bricks. Like a child seeing snow for the first time, he has a look of perplexed wonderment on his rather plain face.
After what seems an eternity he stirs, snapping out of his reverie. All of a sudden he feels like a changed man. For the first time in decades he sees himself for what he really is: An aging man who has devoted his time and energy to the vainglorious pursuit of wealth and prestige. What a folly! He has not done or created anything that has contributed to human progress. Quite the contrary: the vast sums he and his ilk have amassed over the years are thanks to a rigged economic system that redirects wealth from the powerless but largely productive to the powerful but largely parasitical.
The reason for his epiphany is unclear. Perhaps, like Dickens’ Scrooge, he has been visited by ghosts from the past. Or maybe he’s become privy to new information or has been asked to perform certain duties that offend even his minimal standards of decency. Perhaps he’s been overwhelmed by Christmas spirit after looking in the eyes of his new-born grandchild. Or perhaps he’s undergoing the early stages of a late mid-life crisis.
Whatever the reason, his role as CEO has been cast in an entirely new light. Whereas before he was proud of the status and position he’d achieved in his career, he is now ashamed of the sneaky, duplicitous behavior that got him there, not to mention frustrated by his inability to leave any meaningful mark on the company’s culture and performance since taking the helm in the wake of the crisis.
His first reaction is to renounce his job there and then, to be rid of it as swiftly as possible. In short, to start afresh. Like any rat, he wants to abandon the sinking ship. And given the real state of the banks’ books and the growing surge in anti-bank sentiment in the country, who could blame him for wanting out?
But our rat is not your average rat. Once upon a time, he had lived by a fairly strict moral code. He had also believed, perhaps naively, that a well-run banking sector could be a force for good in the world. Over the course of a 30-year career those elevated ideals had faded, sacrificed on the altar of personal gain and ambition, and eroded by the rampant cynicism that informs and infects the upper echelons of the banking profession.
Desertion is not an option, he decides. Rather than bow out in a final act of cowardice, he would stay his ground, fight his corner and campaign tirelessly for an overhaul of the business-as-usual model of big-bank finance. Sweeping change was desperately needed in a sector that had outgrown its usefulness and was now threatening to bring down the entire global economy. And where better to start than at his own bank?
With a look of resolute determination, he reaches into the top drawer of his bureau to pull out a note pad, picks up his favourite pen, a gold-plated, diamond-encrusted Mont Blanc, and begins scribbling some ideas. This is what he writes:
The world’s major financial institutions, including my own, are for all intents and purposes bankrupt, not just financially but morally. They have become a deadweight burden on the economy and society. It is time to begin reforming the entire sector. I propose to add my grain of salt by trying to execute the following strategies at my own bank:
1) To gradually return it to its original primary function, i.e. facilitating efficient capital allocation. To do that, it must once again focus on attracting and building up a strong long-term deposit base and offering loans to credit-starved (and of course, credit worthy) businesses and households.
2) To bring all our accounts back on shore. We can no longer justify hiding our dirty linen in off-shore accounts, in the name of short-term profit and bonus payouts. If, thanks to our own reckless actions, we have grown dependent on taxpayers’ generosity, the least we could do is be open and upfront about our state of health and the risks we face as an institution.
3) To split up the bank’s investment banking activities from its commercial operations. In short, it is time for our own Glass Steagall act, and if that means the bank will be less profitable than some of its competitors, then so be it. What matters is that our depositors’ money is no longer put at risk by our increasingly risky investment banking operations, and that neither arm of the bank can be imperilled by the other’s activities.
4) To wind down and divest as many of the bank’s derivatives gambles (because, let’s face it, that is what they are) as soon as possible. This we will have to do as carefully as possible, especially given the systemic risk posed by rapid sell-offs of said products. In the future, we will only use derivatives in accordance with their original conception – that is, as a hedge against some of our largest trading positions. We will also cease to operate as a market maker in the derivatives markets – while it may be an immensely profitable activity, its ”macro” impact is to amplify risk, destabilise institutions and pave the way for a potentially apocalyptic financial collapse. I mean, the derivatives market is already worth more than 12 times current global GDP. How much larger can it grow before it blows up in all our faces?
5) To stop laundering money on behalf of society’s most unsavoury elements, including drugs traffickers, arms runners, tin-pot dictators and terrorist organizations. While banks such as HSBC and Standard Chartered may have attracted the most attention in recent months for money laundering activities, the unpleasant, but quietly acknowledged, truth is that we are all at it. To combat this flagrant abuse of fiduciary responsibilities, we must put in place much more stringent risk and quality control systems.
6) To cease all participation in the manipulation and rigging of financial markets. If the last few years have taught us anything, it is that even the biggest markets in the world, including Libor, natural gas, gold, silver and practically all other commodity exchanges, are effectively run by and for the benefit of a small number of immensely powerful financial institutions. To regain the trust of investors and the public at large, we must come clean on these activities and work with government and regulators to try to put an end to them – admittedly easier said than done considering that most governments and regulators prefer to turn a blind eye, in exchange for a cut of the profits rather than uncover and/or punish these abuses.
7) To stop using high-frequency trading to front-run markets. Investments that are executed in nano seconds and are purely designed to capitalise on arbitrage opportunities provide no value whatsoever to the wider economy. When speculation and reckless risk-taking become the prime engine of an economy, it should come as little surprise when growth stagnates and economic instability rises.
8) To stop engaging in fraud, whether in the misselling of products, the misreporting of financial statements, wash trading, naked short selling or insider trading.
9) To cease lobbying the government to pass laws that are favourable to our sector but detrimental to society at large. If a business cannot compete or survive without oiling the wheels of corruption in government, that business does not deserve to exist. Transparency, openness and accountability will be the new watchwords of this organisation.
10) To bring the public on board. This will be essential if we are to overcome fierce resistance from shareholders, including the government, as well as my fellow board members and other banks. In recent years, my sector has proven itself impervious to meaningful change – and why should it when it occupies such a dominant position in the economy? Meaningful change will not come about through political means either, especially in light of the sniveling toadies that masquerade as politicians today. No, the only way real transformation can take place is if it is driven from the bottom up, which is why every effort must be made to communicate to stakeholders and the public at large the urgency of change. Without their support…
At this point, our man’s train of thought is interrupted by a phone call. Thinking it might be his wife, he answers in unusually tender fashion. But instead of being his wife, it is the deputy governor of the nation’s central bank, one of the few people in his profession he has to answer to. After exchanging a short round of pleasantries, the deputy chairman instructs him that his presence is urgently required at the central bank’s head office.
“We have a serious problem. One of our members is in serious straits,” he says. “Everyone – and I mean everyone – will be there.”
When the call ends, our man breathes a deep sigh – whether of relief or regret is impossible to say – and then takes a deep gulp of the whisky by his side. He looks down at the scrawled notes on his desk and allows himself a wistful smile. “Oh, well. Some other day,” he says as he places the papers into the bottom drawer of his bureau.