Did the UK banking sector really commit £20.2bn worth of villainy in 2012?

Massive penalties for banks are becoming business as usual.

A couple of weeks ago, I pointed out that the financial results the media most cares about in a post-2008 world are fines and bonuses, rather than profit or turnover.

In the circumstances, I was talking about how any attempt to find something worthy of outrage in Google’s fine or bonus totals was trivial in the context of the digital behemoth’s bottom line.

Now, however, the availability of full year results from the UK’s major banks has prompted KPMG to agree that the numbers connected with reputational capital are now central to banking performance – and not in any woolly long-term sense, but in the here and now.

According to the report, while 2012’s “core profits” for the UK’s Big Five (Barclays, HSBC, Lloyds Banking Group, RBS and Standard Chartered) were up 45 per cent up year-on-year due to lower bad debt and steadier investment banking performance, “regulatory fines, customer redress provisions and the accounting consequences of improved creditworthiness” had in fact blown statutory profits in the other direction, to a level 40 per cent lower than the previous year.

This round of snakes and ladders, according to KPMG, made the difference between a combined core profit of £31.5 bn, and actual statutory profits of £11.7 bn.

Before concluding that the UK banking sector committed £20.2bn worth of villainy in 2012, it must be pointed out that the “key snakeholder” in this set of adverse events, at £12.8bn, was in fact the “accounting consequences of improved creditworthiness” – eg a downward revision of post-tax profits due to the revaluation of "own debt" in the context of increased financial health.

Ironically in this regard, banks were making better profits when they were less creditworthy. But that’s financial reporting for you.

But even taking this into account, KPMG identified around £12bn* of profit modifiers linked directly with misbehaviour, including the PPI mess, the Libor scandal, the mis-selling of derivatives products to SMEs, and weaknesses in anti-money laundering measures.

In a headline statement, the head of KPMG’s EMA Financial Services practice, Bill Michael, said banks had had “a dire year” in reputational terms, adding that the sector’s number one priority at this stage should be “restoring public trust.”

A quick look at the related headlines under any article covering the KPMG report underlines Michael’s point succinctly:

“JP Morgan accused of hiding losses”, “More than 500 bankers paid £1m-plus”, “UBS banker gets $26m 'golden hello'” (feel the acid dripping from those quote marks). “Barclays gets caught out by $900m trade”, “bosses handed £40m bonus pot” – the list could go on for paragraphs.  

With these “exceptional events” becoming everyday occurrences for an increasingly jaded customer base, one has to wonder whether the sector is capable of reinventing its behaviour from the ground up, or whether it would be better off just considering the regular imposition of massive penalties to be business as usual.  

* According to KPMG, the £20.2bn difference in core and statutory profit was a net figure, comprising around £24.8bn in negative modifiers, and £4.6bn in positive ones.

Fireworks from KPMG. Photograph: Getty Images

By day, Fred Crawley is editor of Credit Today and Insolvency Today. By night, he reviews graphic novels for the New Statesman.

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The deafening killer - why noise will be the next great pollution scandal

A growing body of evidence shows that noise can have serious health impacts too. 

Our cities are being poisoned by a toxin that surrounds us day and night. It eats away at our brains, hurts our hearts, clutches at our sleep, and gnaws at the quality of our daily lives.

Hardly a silent killer, it gets short shrift compared to the well-publicised terrors of air pollution and sugars food. It is the dull, thumping, stultifying drum-beat of perpetual noise.

The score that accompanies city life is brutal and constant. It disrupts the everyday: The coffee break ruined by the screech of a line of double decker buses braking at the lights. The lawyer’s conference call broken by drilling as she makes her way to the office. The writer’s struggle to find a quiet corner to pen his latest article.

For city-dwellers, it’s all-consuming and impossible to avoid. Construction, traffic, the whirring of machinery, the neighbour’s stereo. Even at home, the beeps and buzzes made by washing machines, fridges, and phones all serve to distract and unsettle.

But the never-ending noisiness of city life is far more than a problem of aesthetics. A growing body of evidence shows that noise can have serious health impacts too. Recent studies have linked noise pollution to hearing loss, sleep deprivation, hypertension, heart disease, brain development, and even increased risk of dementia.

One research team compared families living on different stories of the same building in Manhattan to isolate the impact of noise on health and education. They found children in lower, noisier floors were worse at reading than their higher-up peers, an effect that was most pronounced for children who had lived in the building for longest.

Those studies have been replicated for the impact of aircraft noise with similar results. Not only does noise cause higher blood pressure and worsens quality of sleep, it also stymies pupils trying to concentrate in class.

As with many forms of pollution, the poorest are typically the hardest hit. The worst-off in any city often live by busy roads in poorly-insulated houses or flats, cheek by jowl with packed-in neighbours.

The US Department of Transport recently mapped road and aircraft noise across the United States. Predictably, the loudest areas overlapped with some of the country’s most deprived. Those included the south side of Atlanta and the lowest-income areas of LA and Seattle.

Yet as noise pollution grows in line with road and air traffic and rising urban density, public policy has turned a blind eye.

Council noise response services, formally a 24-hour defence against neighbourly disputes, have fallen victim to local government cuts. Decisions on airport expansion and road development pay scant regard to their audible impact. Political platforms remain silent on the loudest poison.

This is odd at a time when we have never had more tools at our disposal to deal with the issue. Electric Vehicles are practically noise-less, yet noise rarely features in the arguments for their adoption. Just replacing today’s bus fleet would transform city centres; doing the same for taxis and trucks would amount to a revolution.

Vehicles are just the start. Millions were spent on a programme of “Warm Homes”; what about “Quiet Homes”? How did we value the noise impact in the decision to build a third runway at Heathrow, and how do we compensate people now that it’s going ahead?

Construction is a major driver of decibels. Should builders compensate “noise victims” for over-drilling? Or could regulation push equipment manufacturers to find new ways to dampen the sound of their kit?

Of course, none of this addresses the noise pollution we impose on ourselves. The bars and clubs we choose to visit or the music we stick in our ears. Whether pumping dance tracks in spin classes or indie rock in trendy coffee shops, people’s desire to compensate for bad noise out there by playing louder noise in here is hard to control for.

The Clean Air Act of 1956 heralded a new era of city life, one where smog and grime gave way to clear skies and clearer lungs. That fight still goes on today.

But some day, we will turn our attention to our clogged-up airwaves. The decibels will fall. #Twitter will give way to twitter. And every now and again, as we step from our homes into city life, we may just hear the sweetest sound of all. Silence.

Adam Swersky is a councillor in Harrow and is cabinet member for finance. He writes in a personal capacity.