Did you hear the one about the honest, hard-working and decent banker?

No, really, did you?

Despite this being the worst week yet for an industry that’s had more than its fair share of miserable weeks in recent years, and even in spite of the fact that the accusations against the so-called “banksters” have escalated from a lack of morality to potential criminality, there remain plenty of honest, good and moral men and women working in financial services. Many of them are even in the most senior positions

Take, for example, the old story (retold to me this week) about Lord Mervyn Davies, when he was boss of Standard Chartered. As the drama of Bob Diamond’s resignation over the role of Barclays in Libor-rigging unfolded, I was offered this wonderful insight that explains why few expect Standard Chartered to be implicated in this most serious episode of financial misadventure. It also explains why Standard Chartered wasn’t quite as exposed to the financial crisis as many of its competitors.

Some time in 2006, one of Standard Chartered’s financial rocket scientists met with Davies to let the bank get involved in the sort of complex transactions that were all the rage at the time and that were making rivals (both institutions and individuals) so rich. Davies, clearly not a stupid man, asked the boffin to explain the scheme. About 20 minutes later Davies stopped him and admitted he hadn’t understood a word. A sure sign of his intelligence and honesty was that he was confidant enough to show his ignorance (not something very prevalent in banking boardrooms at the time). He gave the boffin another go, who then took half an hour to explain his ideas in plain English. Davies thanked him for his time but still didn’t follow. He is reported to have said, because he couldn’t understand the scheme, there was no way he was prepared to let the bank get into it. Two years later that already looked to be a good call; six years on it looks like the wisest possible decision.

There is danger that this sort of story makes Davies appear something of a throwback to a much-vaunted "golden age" of banking. While this week has been bad, we must resist glorifying the past or go misty eyed over an era before the Big Bang opened the City up and all those brash Americans brought their naughty ways over here. The old City was the worst kind of closed shop. Deals – rather, gentleman’s agreements – were sewn up over lunch or a round of golf, and in this age diversity meant hiring from both Oxford and Cambridge. Women, if they were in the boardroom at all, were there to make tea and take notes.

It may have its faults, but the modern financial services sector is a rare example of a UK success story. And the whole economy benefits from a thriving financial services industry. But that’s exactly why wrongdoing (especially crime) must be rooted out and acted on swiftly. Criminality must be punished as such and all financial gains must be recovered, as they would be elsewhere.

All this requires adequate regulatory oversight and proper legal protection. It’s why the government must recognise that its Financial Services Bill is not fit for purpose as it is and needs a radical overhaul.

The good news is that there is still time to get it right. But it requires politicians to stop pointing fingers over whether light-touch, tripartite regulation caused the mess and see that the proposed twin peaks regulation is equally flawed. There are myriad specialists arguing that while politicians quibble over quantity of regulation, it’s the quality of those rules that matters. Politicians must take this opportunity to learn from other people’s mistakes and create the support and regulatory structures that allow us all to be confident of hearing many more stories about decent, honest bankers in the future.

This article originally appeared in Economia

London. Photograph, Getty Images

Richard Cree is the Editor of Economia.

Photo: Getty
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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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