After what just happened to Chris Lucas, who'd be a banker?

Banker bashing is our new national sport.

Another week, another banker is on the podium. This week it’s the former Barclays’ finance director, Chris Lucas, who has just announced his retirement having joined the Bank in pre-recession in 2007.

Suddenly a flurry of questions surrounds him: Was he involved in the Libor scandal that forced his boss, Bob Diamond, to go?  Perhaps the current investigation into a suspicious loan to Qatar has something to do with it? Did Lucas leave on his own account or was there a gentle nudge by those seeking to clear out the Barclays "old guard"? (Mark Harding, Barclays Group General Counsel also announced his retirement having joined in 2003.) 

We simply don’t know yet. But so far all clues look innocent: apparently Lucas wanted to go two years ago, citing health reasons. He even waived his 2012 bonus because of the Libor scandal and insiders consider it unlikely he will part with a "golden handshake".

So why the tirade of questions? Is the retirement of a finance director really that interesting or perhaps banking needs a new villain? We want another Bob Diamond, another Fred Goodwin or Stephen Hester who we can point at and say, “You’re the problem”. Bored of the old banking stories, here is a something potentially new. Barclays has recently been beset by woes and the spotlight is on those walking out of the board room.    

While banker bashing has become endemic, a national sport, it is discouraging a generation from (what was) considered the top job. This scrutiny weighs heaviest on those, like Lucas, at board level. After announcing Lucas and Harding’s retirement, Barclays said, “Chris and Mark have agreed to remain in their roles until their successors have been appointed and an appropriate handover completed. The search for these appointments is now underway”. A job in banking anyone?   

Another week, another banker is on the podium. Getty Images

Oliver Williams is an analyst at WealthInsight and writes for VRL Financial News

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BHS is Theresa May’s big chance to reform capitalism – she’d better take it

Almost everyone is disgusted by the tale of BHS. 

Back in 2013, Theresa May gave a speech that might yet prove significant. In it, she declared: “Believing in free markets doesn’t mean we believe that anything goes.”

Capitalism wasn’t perfect, she continued: 

“Where it’s manifestly failing, where it’s losing public support, where it’s not helping to provide opportunity for all, we have to reform it.”

Three years on and just days into her premiership, May has the chance to be a reformist, thanks to one hell of an example of failing capitalism – BHS. 

The report from the Work and Pensions select committee was damning. Philip Green, the business tycoon, bought BHS and took more out than he put in. In a difficult environment, and without new investment, it began to bleed money. Green’s prize became a liability, and by 2014 he was desperate to get rid of it. He found a willing buyer, Paul Sutton, but the buyer had previously been convicted of fraud. So he sold it to Sutton’s former driver instead, for a quid. Yes, you read that right. He sold it to a crook’s driver for a quid.

This might all sound like a ludicrous but entertaining deal, if it wasn’t for the thousands of hapless BHS workers involved. One year later, the business collapsed, along with their job prospects. Not only that, but Green’s lack of attention to the pension fund meant their dreams of a comfortable retirement were now in jeopardy. 

The report called BHS “the unacceptable face of capitalism”. It concluded: 

"The truth is that a large proportion of those who have got rich or richer off the back of BHS are to blame. Sir Philip Green, Dominic Chappell and their respective directors, advisers and hangers-on are all culpable. 

“The tragedy is that those who have lost out are the ordinary employees and pensioners.”

May appears to agree. Her spokeswoman told journalists the PM would “look carefully” at policies to tackle “corporate irresponsibility”. 

She should take the opportunity.

Attempts to reshape capitalism are almost always blunted in practice. Corporations can make threats of their own. Think of Google’s sweetheart tax deals, banks’ excessive pay. Each time politicians tried to clamp down, there were threats of moving overseas. If the economy weakens in response to Brexit, the power to call the shots should tip more towards these companies. 

But this time, there will be few defenders of the BHS approach.

Firstly, the report's revelations about corporate governance damage many well-known brands, which are tarnished by association. Financial services firms will be just as keen as the public to avoid another BHS. Simon Walker, director general of the Institute of Directors, said that the circumstances of the collapse of BHS were “a blight on the reputation of British business”.

Secondly, the pensions issue will not go away. Neglected by Green until it was too late, the £571m hole in the BHS pension finances is extreme. But Tom McPhail from pensions firm Hargreaves Lansdown has warned there are thousands of other defined benefit schemes struggling with deficits. In the light of BHS, May has an opportunity to take an otherwise dusty issue – protections for workplace pensions - and place it top of the agenda. 

Thirdly, the BHS scandal is wreathed in the kind of opaque company structures loathed by voters on the left and right alike. The report found the Green family used private, offshore companies to direct the flow of money away from BHS, which made it in turn hard to investigate. The report stated: “These arrangements were designed to reduce tax bills. They have also had the effect of reducing levels of corporate transparency.”

BHS may have failed as a company, but its demise has succeeded in uniting the left and right. Trade unionists want more protection for workers; City boys are worried about their reputation; patriots mourn the death of a proud British company. May has a mandate to clean up capitalism - she should seize it.