So far, those at the very top of failing banks - chairmen and chief executives - have for the most part avoided going down with the ship, and today the Prudential Regulation Authority's Andrew Bailey has called them out. It is "more than odd", he said, speaking at a conference in London, that people at the very top of the chain have avoided formal charges while those beneath them shoulder the blame.
It is to my mind a very striking observation and difficulty with the crisis that no formal action has been taken against any chief executive or any chairmen of a failed institution. Not because I have a personal vendetta against them but it is more than odd that action has been taken against people lower down institutions but not at the top.
The explanation he'd been given, Bailey said, was that there was a “problem with the trail of evidence”, which allowed bosses to “delegate responsibility as well as tasks”. This was evidence, he said, of a “flaw in the system” peculiar to banking.
Blaming your juniors is hardly a custom specific to a single industry - but in this case, over misdemeanors that seem to spring directly from company culture, it seems particularly logical to blame those at the top. (This recently did happen at HBOS - and today Bailey said he "welcomed" Vince Cable's investigatation of a boardroom ban for the "HBOS three" at the top, Lord Stevenson, Sir James Crosby and Andy Hornby.) Follow this logic any further, however, and things start looking a little less clear cut. Here's the FT on some further causes of the collapse of HBOS:
Three accessories after the fact not named in the report are Westminster, the City and the financial press. HBOS’s board were buccaneering heroes to many in the Noughties. Sir James’s New Labour chums secured his knighthood in 2006. Gung ho investors pushed HBOS shares higher between June 2004 and 2007 than any bank stock, Standard Chartered excepted. Business journalists mostly bought the bank’s bullish story, including Lombards past and present.
But if the blame is to be so broadly spread, it becomes meaningless. Blame too few, though, and it becomes scapegoating. Here's Robert Peston:
Here's the thing: if the HBOS troika are to be blacklisted from the City, why not ban those who ran the other failed banks, RBS, Bradford & Bingley and Northern Rock?
The important thing, as Peston points out, is to mete out the cathartic punishment so necessary to the public without damaging banks too much. As the potential for blame stretches to an entire industry and beyond, there will be an element of scapegoating here, and it would be moral to place this scapegoating at the top. But we must be careful not to set off a domino effect - if we blame x - why not blame y? - and risk harming too many powerful players in too many institutions. Perhaps the solution is just to pick one banker and drive them into the wasteland outside the city (hackney marshes/Essex?), and then have done. Suggestions on a post-card.