Despite the tragedy now unfolding at Peregrine, the commodity-trading firm showed all the classic signs of spinning out of control – CEOs shouldn’t have private jets flying all over the world to see Lady Gaga and regulated firms shouldn’t be allowed to have a one-man auditor in some suburban strip mall. But, for all Peregrine’s failings and that of its regulatory framework, it was, after all, in a high-stakes business with notoriously lax standards. That isn’t supposed to be the way it is at the world’s largest banks, but one scandal after another makes clear that, even to a banking-industry sympathizer like me, banks have lost sight of the most critical premise of their business model: trust.
So, what’s new this week? The continued drumbeat of LIBOR revelations is of course top of the heap, posing yet again the fundamental question: can bankers be traders if banks can’t control traders, who are very, very different people than bankers (see above re Lady Gaga). But, there are all sorts of other serious problems that point, perhaps with less color, to problems of comparable magnitude.
On Tuesday, the Senate Permanent Investigations Subcommittee will take HSBC to task for money-laundering violations. Oh sure, a bit of drug-cartel money here or there is a longstanding compliance problem, but this is different. Allegedly, the bank had a wink/nod business model in which billions moved not just to thugs and murderers – also not so good, by the way – but also to proliferators of weapons of mass destruction. In short, it is alleged that to make a buck, HSBC was willing to bet that their customers couldn’t build the bomb it financed. What management knew when, we’ll know next week. What I know now is that a profound lack of controls must have pervaded global customer due-diligence and payment operations.
Back home, there’s the Wells Fargo settlement for $175 million over fair-lending violations. When issues of steering and yield-spread premiums surfaced during the mortgage boom, I talked to a top guy at Wells about this, a man who most sincerely was certain that nothing of the sort could be going on at his bank. The bank still denies it, but obviously found so many violations by brokers that booked loans on its behalf that it settled most expensively with the Department of Justice. This case follows a larger penalty against Countrywide, but Countrywide wasn’t a bank, despite its charter – it was a bunch of brigands in bank clothing who never should have been allowed to do what they did (thanks, OTS). Wells is different; it’s a real bank and, thus, one that should have robust internal controls to prevent costly harm to vulnerable customers.
In yet another recent scandal, it turns out that bankers can hurt you even if you aren’t poor and black. We know a Greek ship owner who got slammed when his U.K. bank required him to take out an interest-rate swap to protect the bank when it condescended to make him a loan. The swap cost him more than the loan ever did. The bank – and all of its City colleagues (HSBC included) – has now been slapped with another enforcement action and told to clean up their act.
Controls, controls? JPM’s clearly weren’t up to snuff given the 2Q earnings release today and then there’s another huge bank (RBS in the U.K.) that couldn’t give customers its money because it forgot to plug in the ATMs. OK, the systems failure was a bit more complex than that, but it’s still stunning – their most fundamental of all fundamental tasks, banks are to be the till from which spouts our cash. If a bank can’t even do that, what’s it for?
Clearly, these are vital questions for policy-makers and regulators, most of whom want now to answer them by swinging an axe at any banker who happens by. Even more importantly, though, these are issues with which the industry needs to reckon with honesty and introspection. Things didn’t go right before the crisis and they aren’t right yet. Controls and incentives we swore to fix are still all too fragile despite the increasingly incoherent and inconsistent pile-up of rules meant to redress this. What can boards and senior management do to ensure robust governance? They need to speak up or find themselves at the helm of a utility that makes them responsible for little more than keeping the lights on. That isn’t a banking model that serves customers and economic growth, but utilities could well be the refuge policy-makers demand if they conclude that bankers are nothing but scoundrels.