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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I was wrong about Help to Buy - but I'm still glad it's gone

As a mortgage journalist in 2013, I was deeply sceptical of the guarantee scheme. 

If you just read the headlines about Help to Buy, you could be under the impression that Theresa May has just axed an important scheme for first-time buyers. If you're on the left, you might conclude that she is on a mission to make life worse for ordinary working people. If you just enjoy blue-on-blue action, it's a swipe at the Chancellor she sacked, George Osborne.

Except it's none of those things. Help to Buy mortgage guarantee scheme is a policy that actually worked pretty well - despite the concerns of financial journalists including me - and has served its purpose.

When Osborne first announced Help to Buy in 2013, it was controversial. Mortgage journalists, such as I was at the time, were still mopping up news from the financial crisis. We were still writing up reports about the toxic loan books that had brought the banks crashing down. The idea of the Government promising to bail out mortgage borrowers seemed the height of recklessness.

But the Government always intended Help to Buy mortgage guarantee to act as a stimulus, not a long-term solution. From the beginning, it had an end date - 31 December 2016. The idea was to encourage big banks to start lending again.

So far, the record of Help to Buy has been pretty good. A first-time buyer in 2013 with a 5 per cent deposit had 56 mortgage products to choose from - not much when you consider some of those products would have been ridiculously expensive or would come with many strings attached. By 2016, according to Moneyfacts, first-time buyers had 271 products to choose from, nearly a five-fold increase

Over the same period, financial regulators have introduced much tougher mortgage affordability rules. First-time buyers can be expected to be interrogated about their income, their little luxuries and how they would cope if interest rates rose (contrary to our expectations in 2013, the Bank of England base rate has actually fallen). 

A criticism that still rings true, however, is that the mortgage guarantee scheme only helps boost demand for properties, while doing nothing about the lack of housing supply. Unlike its sister scheme, the Help to Buy equity loan scheme, there is no incentive for property companies to build more homes. According to FullFact, there were just 112,000 homes being built in England and Wales in 2010. By 2015, that had increased, but only to a mere 149,000.

This lack of supply helps to prop up house prices - one of the factors making it so difficult to get on the housing ladder in the first place. In July, the average house price in England was £233,000. This means a first-time buyer with a 5 per cent deposit of £11,650 would still need to be earning nearly £50,000 to meet most mortgage affordability criteria. In other words, the Help to Buy mortgage guarantee is targeted squarely at the middle class.

The Government plans to maintain the Help to Buy equity loan scheme, which is restricted to new builds, and the Help to Buy ISA, which rewards savers at a time of low interest rates. As for Help to Buy mortgage guarantee, the scheme may be dead, but so long as high street banks are offering 95 per cent mortgages, its effects are still with us.