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
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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

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