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
Show Hide image

Theresa May's "clean Brexit" is hard Brexit with better PR

The Prime Minister's objectives point to the hardest of exits from the European Union. 

Theresa May will outline her approach to Britain’s Brexit deal in a much-hyped speech later today, with a 12-point plan for Brexit.

The headlines: her vow that Britain will not be “half in, half out” and border control will come before our membership of the single market.

And the PM will unveil a new flavour of Brexit: not hard, not soft, but “clean” aka hard but with better PR.

“Britain's clean break from EU” is the i’s splash, “My 12-point plan for Brexit” is the Telegraph’s, “We Will Get Clean Break From EU” cheers the Express, “Theresa’s New Free Britain” roars the Mail, “May: We’ll Go It Alone With CLEAN Brexit” is the Metro’s take. The Guardian goes for the somewhat more subdued “May rules out UK staying in single market” as their splash while the Sun opts for “Great Brexpectations”.

You might, at this point, be grappling with a sense of déjà vu. May’s new approach to the Brexit talks is pretty much what you’d expect from what she’s said since getting the keys to Downing Street, as I wrote back in October. Neither of her stated red lines, on border control or freeing British law from the European Court of Justice, can be met without taking Britain out of the single market aka a hard Brexit in old money.

What is new is the language on the customs union, the only area where May has actually been sparing on detail. The speech will make it clear that after Brexit, Britain will want to strike its own trade deals, which means that either an unlikely exemption will be carved out, or, more likely, that the United Kingdom will be out of the European Union, the single market and the customs union.

(As an aside, another good steer about the customs union can be found in today’s row between Boris Johnson and the other foreign ministers of the EU27. He is under fire for vetoing an EU statement in support of a two-state solution, reputedly to curry favour with Donald Trump. It would be strange if Downing Street was shredding decades of British policy on the Middle East to appease the President-Elect if we weren’t going to leave the customs union in order at the end of it.)

But what really matters isn’t what May says today but what happens around Europe over the next few months. Donald Trump’s attacks on the EU and Nato yesterday will increase the incentive on the part of the EU27 to put securing the political project front-and-centre in the Brexit talks, making a good deal for Britain significantly less likely.

Add that to the unforced errors on the part of the British government, like Amber Rudd’s wheeze to compile lists of foreign workers, and the diplomatic situation is not what you would wish to secure the best Brexit deal, to put it mildly.

Clean Brexit? Nah. It’s going to get messy. 

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