The curious case of Standard Chartered

And another bad week for banking.

This has been another bad week for the banking industry. For all that some sections of the media will enjoy presenting the allegations against Standard Chartered as the latest example of greedy bankers putting financial interests before ethics or morals, this episode feels more nuanced

That it involves the self-proclaimed "boring bank" Standard Chartered, previously praised by myself and several much wiser industry experts for its prudence and caution through boom and subsequent financial crisis, is unexpected. That it involves a UK bank allegedly consorting with drug dealers, terrorists and Iranian militants seems even stranger. So what does this episode teach us about the state of banking?

1. The banking industry is no longer held in high regard. Had the allegations been made against a firm in another industry or profession there would have been genuine shock as well as outrage. But we appear to have reached some kind of greed fatigue when it comes to bankers. The only surprise at this latest revelation was that it involved a bank formerly thought to be above the rest. Standard Chartered’s reputation (not to mention its share price) has taken a hit and will take a while to recover.

2. International finance is extremely complex. This is easy to believe because it’s only when a fresh scandal breaks that some new complexity of the financial system is revealed. Very few outside the Square Mile knew a collatoralized debt obligation from a credit default swap before the 2008 financial crisis. Some within the City (including senior figures) struggled to explain them even when they’d turned bad and taxpayers were footing the bill. Every awkward revelation since has unveiled a bit more complexity. One reason ex-Barclays CEO Bob Diamond gave little away to the Treasury Select Committee was because they didn’t know enough of the detail. A simple question from Bob about which Libor rate they were referring to would have stymied most of the committee. Very few people understand enough to take bankers to task. Regulating and overseeing this complexity is tough. It’s hard to even begin to guess where the next scandal will be, what fresh villainy it will reveal and what new complexity will be uncovered. We need banking legislation that can cover what Donald Rumsfeld would call the unknown unknowns.

3. We need prudence back. It became something of a comical phrase after Gordon Brown first wore it out as chancellor and then abandoned it when the sums got tricky. But effective regulation of banks requires prudent valuation of their complex financial dealing and of assets and liabilities. It used to be an essential element of all accounting best practice, but has been increasingly forgotten as modern standards (including IFRS) place the emphasis elsewhere. More thorough auditing and prudent valuation of all banking activities would be a sensible start.

4. We need banks to exercise self-control. It’s obvious that current systems for regulation haven’t worked. While some changes are taking place on a national level, there is still not enough international co-operation. On the plus side, the most recent scandals have come to light as a result of regulators investigating and reporting on alleged bad behaviour. But it’s a slow process and is all too retrospective. As always, financiers are innovating ahead of regulators. Bankers hate the idea of introducing excessive regulation on financial markets. And it wouldn’t help the world economy. But they have to show that the financial services industry can take responsibility for its own actions. We don’t need more regulation, but we do need better, more effective regulation. This requires better internal auditing, stronger compliance regimes and more self-control on the part of the banks. To use Diamond’s phrase, we need more banks with a culture where people behave ethically when no one’s watching.

5. Regulators are also subjective. One of the problems the Standard Chartered case has highlighted is that the complexity, power and importance of banking itself means that banking regulation must also be highly complex. It also attracts the attention of some who would seek to use the potential power for other means. The focus of the Standard Chartered allegations on dealing with Iran has led some observers to suggest the claims serve a wider political purpose in the US. While it’s not clear what that purpose might be, other than rubbishing London at the expense of New York, the claim highlights how national best interests are rarely aligned with either individual commercial goals or the wider global good.

6. It’s time for an international banking amnesty. With each revelation of wrongdoing we learn something new about the banks and something depressing about our society. We should waive further fines or punishments if all the banks agree to sign up once and for all to a thorough and totally transparent immediate assessment of all of their books. Like some sort of one-off super-audit, it would allow them to own up now to all the things they would normally like auditors and regulators not to see. We need to know where all the bodies are buried, right across the system.

This article first appeared in economia.

Standard Chartered. Photograph: Getty Images

Richard Cree is the Editor of Economia.

Photo: Getty
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Theresa May's U-Turn may have just traded one problem for another

The problems of the policy have been moved, not eradicated. 

That didn’t take long. Theresa May has U-Turned on her plan to make people personally liable for the costs of social care until they have just £100,000 worth of assets, including property, left.

As the average home is valued at £317,000, in practice, that meant that most property owners would have to remortgage their house in order to pay for the cost of their social care. That upwards of 75 per cent of baby boomers – the largest group in the UK, both in terms of raw numbers and their higher tendency to vote – own their homes made the proposal politically toxic.

(The political pain is more acute when you remember that, on the whole, the properties owned by the elderly are worth more than those owned by the young. Why? Because most first-time buyers purchase small flats and most retirees are in large family homes.)

The proposal would have meant that while people who in old age fall foul of long-term degenerative illnesses like Alzheimers would in practice face an inheritance tax threshold of £100,000, people who die suddenly would face one of £1m, ten times higher than that paid by those requiring longer-term care. Small wonder the proposal was swiftly dubbed a “dementia tax”.

The Conservatives are now proposing “an absolute limit on the amount people have to pay for their care costs”. The actual amount is TBD, and will be the subject of a consultation should the Tories win the election. May went further, laying out the following guarantees:

“We are proposing the right funding model for social care.  We will make sure nobody has to sell their family home to pay for care.  We will make sure there’s an absolute limit on what people need to pay. And you will never have to go below £100,000 of your savings, so you will always have something to pass on to your family.”

There are a couple of problems here. The proposed policy already had a cap of sorts –on the amount you were allowed to have left over from meeting your own care costs, ie, under £100,000. Although the system – effectively an inheritance tax by lottery – displeased practically everyone and spooked elderly voters, it was at least progressive, in that the lottery was paid by people with assets above £100,000.

Under the new proposal, the lottery remains in place – if you die quickly or don’t require expensive social care, you get to keep all your assets, large or small – but the losers are the poorest pensioners. (Put simply, if there is a cap on costs at £25,000, then people with assets below that in value will see them swallowed up, but people with assets above that value will have them protected.)  That is compounded still further if home-owners are allowed to retain their homes.

So it’s still a dementia tax – it’s just a regressive dementia tax.

It also means that the Conservatives have traded going into the election’s final weeks facing accusations that they will force people to sell their own homes for going into the election facing questions over what a “reasonable” cap on care costs is, and you don’t have to be very imaginative to see how that could cause them trouble.

They’ve U-Turned alright, but they may simply have swerved away from one collision into another.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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