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.

Photo: Getty Images
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How can Britain become a nation of homeowners?

David Cameron must unlock the spirit of his postwar predecessors to get the housing market back on track. 

In the 1955 election, Anthony Eden described turning Britain into a “property-owning democracy” as his – and by extension, the Conservative Party’s – overarching mission.

60 years later, what’s changed? Then, as now, an Old Etonian sits in Downing Street. Then, as now, Labour are badly riven between left and right, with their last stay in government widely believed – by their activists at least – to have been a disappointment. Then as now, few commentators seriously believe the Tories will be out of power any time soon.

But as for a property-owning democracy? That’s going less well.

When Eden won in 1955, around a third of people owned their own homes. By the time the Conservative government gave way to Harold Wilson in 1964, 42 per cent of households were owner-occupiers.

That kicked off a long period – from the mid-50s right until the fall of the Berlin Wall – in which home ownership increased, before staying roughly flat at 70 per cent of the population from 1991 to 2001.

But over the course of the next decade, for the first time in over a hundred years, the proportion of owner-occupiers went to into reverse. Just 64 percent of households were owner-occupier in 2011. No-one seriously believes that number will have gone anywhere other than down by the time of the next census in 2021. Most troublingly, in London – which, for the most part, gives us a fairly accurate idea of what the demographics of Britain as a whole will be in 30 years’ time – more than half of households are now renters.

What’s gone wrong?

In short, property prices have shot out of reach of increasing numbers of people. The British housing market increasingly gets a failing grade at “Social Contract 101”: could someone, without a backstop of parental or family capital, entering the workforce today, working full-time, seriously hope to retire in 50 years in their own home with their mortgage paid off?

It’s useful to compare and contrast the policy levers of those two Old Etonians, Eden and Cameron. Cameron, so far, has favoured demand-side solutions: Help to Buy and the new Help to Buy ISA.

To take the second, newer of those two policy innovations first: the Help to Buy ISA. Does it work?

Well, if you are a pre-existing saver – you can’t use the Help to Buy ISA for another tax year. And you have to stop putting money into any existing ISAs. So anyone putting a little aside at the moment – not going to feel the benefit of a Help to Buy ISA.

And anyone solely reliant on a Help to Buy ISA – the most you can benefit from, if you are single, it is an extra three grand from the government. This is not going to shift any houses any time soon.

What it is is a bung for the only working-age demographic to have done well out of the Coalition: dual-earner couples with no children earning above average income.

What about Help to Buy itself? At the margins, Help to Buy is helping some people achieve completions – while driving up the big disincentive to home ownership in the shape of prices – and creating sub-prime style risks for the taxpayer in future.

Eden, in contrast, preferred supply-side policies: his government, like every peacetime government from Baldwin until Thatcher’s it was a housebuilding government.

Why are house prices so high? Because there aren’t enough of them. The sector is over-regulated, underprovided, there isn’t enough housing either for social lets or for buyers. And until today’s Conservatives rediscover the spirit of Eden, that is unlikely to change.

I was at a Conservative party fringe (I was on the far left, both in terms of seating and politics).This is what I said, minus the ums, the ahs, and the moment my screensaver kicked in.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.