UK’s Alarming Apathy Towards Its Banking Sector’s Criminality

December 9, 2011United Kingdomby QFinance

UK’s Alarming Apathy Towards Its Banking Sector’s Criminality

The UK’s financial regulatory bodies have shown a surprising "hear no evil" attitude to criminality in its banking and financial sector. At times, the financial regulators almost seemed to want to pretend that criminality and fraud didn't, or couldn't exist in the domain they are supposed to police. Unless this issue is addressed, London risks losing its mantle as a world leading financial centre.

Ever since its first failure became apparent with the collapse of Northern Rock in September 2007, the UK's Financial Services Authority has shown a remarkable lack of introspection or contrition about its own pre-crisis role. The reported attempts to brush the 2008 near-wipe-out of Royal Bank of Scotland under the carpet, via a 480-page report blaming RBS's failure on the global financial crisis and Johnny Cameron, while skirting around the roles of chief executive Sir Fred Goodwin and chairman Sir Tom McKillop, is just another symptom of the culture of cover-up and denial at the Canary Wharf-based institution.

Depressingly, it appears that the same culture of circling the wagons to protect the rich and powerful looks set to permeate the successor bodies that are due to replace the FSA in early 2013.

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The FSA's Hector Sants and Martin Wheatley, managing director of its consumer and markets group and a former Hong Kong regulator, appeared before the Treasury select committee of the UK's House of Commons on November 1, alongside FSA chairman Lord (Adair) Turner and interim managing director (conduct of business unit) Margaret Cole.

Ostensibly the session was about the government’s program for scrapping the FSA and replacing it with the Prudential Regulatory Authority and Financial Conduct Authority. The FCA, which was originally going to be called the Consumer Protection and Markets Authority, will focus "on the use of firms as a conduit for financial crime", and the PRA will come under the Bank of England and be responsible for "macro-prudential oversight" of the markets and institutions (the former is to be run by Wheatley and the latter by Sants).

What disturbed me the most about the November 1 session was the regulators' seeming nonchalance about criminality in the UK's banking sector. At times, using the tortured and obfuscatory phraseology, the financial regulators almost seemed to want to pretend that criminality and fraud didn't, or couldn't exist in the domain they are supposed to police. This struck me as very strange.

The regulators present in the Treasury committee hearing were all aware of Thames Valley Police's ongoing Operation Hornet investigation into money-laundering, corruption and large-scale fraud involving the corporate lending division of HBOS (now part of Lloyds Banking Group). Sants & Co must also be aware that, in a desperate pursuit of profits, several banks and financial institutions in the City that have "gone rogue". They will also be aware of high-profile cases such as that of the UBS "rogue" trader Kweku Adoboli. Against this backdrop, their "hear no evil" attitude to criminality in the banking and financial sector was bizarre.

Instead of seeking to root-out criminality, the FSA's executives speaking at the Treasury committee hearing expressed a strong preference for cosy backroom deals – in which  financial wrongdoers are coerced into agreeing to lifetime bans from working in the financial sector, often in exchange for an agreement from the FSA not to make any further investigations.

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These are exactly the sort of deals that the FSA has already struck with former head of investment banking at RBS Johnny Cameron, and which it has attempted to reach with Peter Cummings, the former head of corporate lending at HBOS. But to me at least such deals are a travesty of regulation.

The main reason the FSA likes them as they are enables the regulator sweep high-level under the rug. But their consequence is that many of the "white collar" criminals, whose deeds undoubtedly precipitated financial collapse, continue to play their trade in the City and the chances of cathartic prosecutions recede further and further into the distance.

So what of the detail of the Treasury committee session? The FSA executives told the MPs that they did not favor the drafting of any further criminal laws on the mismanagement of banks and financial institutions, beyond the existing powers to prosecute for fraud or deliberately mislead the market. And according to the Hansard transcript of the session, Cole said:

"There isn't a criminal offence that is pertinent to the behavior of bankers. Some may say it should be, but it is not a criminal offence to be incompetent."

My jaw hit the floor at this point. The committee's chairman, Andrew Tyrie MP, then asked Cole how many bankers have been found guilty of offences, which under the FSA's proposals, would be likely to lead to a prison term? Cole replied:

"If there were to be a criminal offence relative to behavior of bankers and the running of banks, that would require new legislation. It is not framed in this current draft legislation.”

Jesse Norman MP, taken aback, reminded the regulators of their earlier affirmations that more “proper accountability” is needed. Norman said: “One thinks of HBOS, which fired its head of risk before going bust, and similar concerns at the RBS. These executives are very highly paid and they bear very large private and public responsibility, so my question for you, Mr. Wheatley, is would you support making certain actions into criminal offences? For example reckless mismanagement of a financial institution?"

London Risks Losing Its Mantle As A World Leading Financial Centre

According to the Hansard transcript this is what followed:

Martin Wheatley: I think we have to be very careful about what we consider to be criminal actions. The challenge that we all have is we want good people in those roles, and so we want good people to take on the roles of directors, to take on the role of chief executives.

Jesse Norman: You are not suggesting that Messrs Goodwin, Stevenson, Crosby, and so on, were successful exemplars of good management in banking?

Martin Wheatley: I think we have to have the appropriate level of penalties for the appropriate level of offences. I think that is something we just have to think very carefully about.

Jesse Norman: But would you, in principle, support the idea of making certain actions into criminal offences in this area?

Martin Wheatley: When you say "in this area", the principle of making certain actions criminal offences, yes. I think we need to be very specific.

Jesse Norman: In the area of management of financial institutions?

Martin Wheatley: Reckless or willfully misleading, possibly. Genuine business mistakes – people make genuine business mistakes.

Jesse Norman: No, certainly not for that. For reckless mismanagement, that kind of category.

Martin Wheatley: Again, and maybe I could ask Margaret to comment as she has more experience of this, I think we just have to be quite cautious about where we push the criminal sanctions into.

Margaret Cole: Clearly where there is fraud, that is a clear issue. We also have a criminal offence of misstatements to the market, and that is already there. I think I would be extremely wary of introducing a criminal offence in connection with management or mismanagement of a financial institution. [She then talked about lifetime bans for 'incompetence' etc]

Jesse Norman: Your view is a significant toughening up but not extra criminalization?

Margaret Cole: That is my view, yes.

Hector Sants: [Said he endorsed tightening up of legislation around lifetime bans]

Lord Turner: I did want to add one point. The criminalization route...does not address the core of the problem...People make business misjudgments in balancing risk and return, but that in banks, we want them to make a different balance of risk and return from other sectors of the economy...the difficulty we have in banking is that, when you take some of those risk/return trade-offs...there [might be] a disaster for the economy as well...

We are more likely to make progress by thinking about whether we should simply face people who are the directors of banks...with a sense of automatic non-criminal sanction ..."You cannot have future employment in the financial services industry unless you positively prove to the regulator that you were the person who was putting up the red flags and trying to warn against the concerns.”

So it seems the FSA's thinking runs as follows.

"Since 'white collar' crime is so hard and so expensive to prosecute (and risks showing up our earlier failures), there is little point in us even trying. We would obtain better results by simply vetting candidates for senior banking and City of London roles more thoroughly, and then offering the sanction of banning them from ever working in finance again if they "mismanage" their institutions."

I'm afraid, however, that this is the wrong approach. Unless the crimes and misdemeanors that caused the UK's banking and financial crisis are rooted out and prosecuted, London risks losing its mantle as a world leading financial centre even more rapidly than now. This would represent a massive risk to the UK economy, as more financial business would seek to ebb away to properly regulated jurisdictions including Singapore.

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In conclusion, I would like to quote Hector Sants's answer to a question from George Mudie MP, concerning whether the FSA has any idea of what's really going on inside Britain’s leading banks, let alone inside the "shadow banking system." Sants replied:

“The short answer to your question is yes [we do now have full transparency from British banks, unlike in 2007-08], but nevertheless I should draw to the committee’s attention a couple of points. First of all, of course, it is possible for fraud –rogue trading – to occur within an institution, which will mean that its position turns out to be different to that which the institution has reported to us. But I believe we have full transparency of those positions. We also have the capability, which we did not have pre-2007, to make our own judgments on the quality of those positions, in the sense that we have hired 200 or so risk specialists. The FSA, as you know, had no risk specialist capability pre 2007; it was not set up to do that. And we now employ multiples of individuals on supervising individual banks compared with that period. So we do have full visibility."

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Related: Bank Bonuses: UK Leads Regulatory Charge, Bankers Meow in AgreementThat's quite a brave claim for Hector Sants to make. And possibly one that will come back to haunt him.

By Ian Fraser

Ian Fraser, a journalist since 1988, is working on programmes about the banking and financial crisis for the BBC. He writes about business and finance for the Financial Times, the Sunday Times, the Independent on Sunday, the Daily Mail, and the Mail on Sunday. Since 2009, Fraser has been a visiting lecturer in financial journalism at the University of Stirling.

FSA's failure to tackle 'white collar' crime endangers the City of London is republished with permission from the QFinance Blog. Get the QFinance Dictionary of Business and Finance iOS app for a comprehensive guide to financial terms and expressions.

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