No sympathy for Britain’s banks as scale of their misdeeds unfolds

London Briefing: banks have much more to do before the time for remorse ends

HSBC chairman Douglas Flint launched a tirade against the reforms being imposed on the banking sector. Photograph: Joe Giddens/PA Wire

HSBC chairman Douglas Flint launched a tirade against the reforms being imposed on the banking sector. Photograph: Joe Giddens/PA Wire

Wed, Aug 6, 2014, 01:00

Since they brought the global financial system to the brink of collapse six years ago, there have been apologies aplenty from Britain’s banking chiefs. Some expressions of regret seemed less sincere than others, but most of them had the sense to say sorry. Every now and then, though, it would become clear they really didn’t appreciate the scale of their recklessness – or the depth of the public’s anger and mistrust. Why else would they have continued to award themselves multimillion pound bonuses while still being bailed out by the taxpayer – and while still ripping off their customers?

Libor scandal

Bob Diamond, the reviled former chief executive of Barclays, caused astonishment when in 2011 he told a committee of MPs that the time for “remorse and apology” was over. A year later, Diamond quit as Barclays was hit with a record-breaking fine of £290 million for rigging the benchmark Libor rate.

Now Douglas Flint, the chairman of HSBC, has launched a tirade against the reforms being imposed on the banking sector. On Monday, as he reported a 12 per cent fall in first-half profits, the head of Europe’s largest bank complained of the huge resources banks were having to pour into complying with new regulations. He spoke of the “growing fatigue” in parts of the bank, intimating that some employees were working round the clock: “there are only 52 weekends in a year”, he said.

Numerous scandals

What Flint appears to have forgotten is that these reforms come not just in the wake of the global financial crisis but also on the back of the numerous scandals that have swept the industry, from rate-rigging to money laundering, sanction-busting and payment protection mis-selling.

The latest controversy to hit the industry involves credit and loan agreements, many of which breached the Consumer Credit Act by failing to give customers full information, such as failing to inform customers that they could make partial repayments.

HSBC disclosed on Monday that it has set aside more than £200 million to repay interest to customers because of mistakes in the paperwork of their loans. The figure was revealed along with a lengthy list of potential financial penalties and litigation the bank faces.

The list, which ran to 10 pages, also included foreign exchange rate rigging, price fixing in the gold and silver markets and claims related to the collapse of the Ponzi scheme run by convicted fraudster Bernie Madoff.

All of which makes Flint’s rant even more surprising. How can he expect sympathy for the banks while the scale of their misdeeds is still emerging? Yet sympathy is apparently what he wants. He warned that employees were becoming too cautious, saying there was “a growing danger of disproportionate risk aversion creeping into decision-making in our business, as individuals, facing uncertainty as to what may be criticised with hindsight and perceiving a zero tolerance of error, seek to protect themselves and the firm from future censure”.

In the real, non-banking world, that’s known as being better safe than sorry. The cost of the new regulations is high – HSBC said it is spending about $800 million more on compliance than a few years ago. It now employs more than 24,000 people worldwide in risk and compliance roles, almost one in 10 of its global workforce. But HSBC is extremely profitable and, despite the 12 per cent fall in the first half, it amassed profits of $12.3 billion.

Before going public with his rant against reforms, Flint had written to chancellor George Osborne, calling for a delay to the 2019 deadline for banks to separate their retail arms from the risky investment banking businesses. The ring-fencing of the retail operations is designed to ensure taxpayers will be off the hook for any bailouts should the “casino” divisions run into trouble again.

Cost of ring-fencing

All the banks have complained about the cost and Flint argues that the deadline should be extended until after the competition authorities have completed their inquiry into the industry.

Flint has a point about the cost and complexity of banking reform. But while the banks continue to shock with their abuse of the rules and mistreatment of customers, he would be foolish to expect much of a hearing. There may be a time when the period of remorse and apology is over, but it hasn’t come yet.
Fiona Walsh is business editor of theguardian.com

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