Culture – the total of the inherited ideas, beliefs, values, and knowledge, which constitute the shared bases of social action (Collins English Dictionary)
Ethics – the moral value of human conduct and of the rules and principles that ought to govern it |(Collins English dictionary)
“The epitome of the multifarious cultural and ethical failures at the bank include the fact its investment banking arm, now due to be largely shut down, was only able to thrive by cheating, and that the arm, now called Markets and Investment Banking (M&IB), continued to rig various benchmarks, swindling investors and counterparties, for years after the bailout.” Ian Fraser – describing one aspect of his book “Shredded: Inside RBS The Bank That Broke Britain”
Just last week, Cass Business School and New City Agenda issued: A Report on the Culture of British Retail Banking . It is a useful analysis of the banking failures but, for once, centred on culture at the banks. As such, it deserves attention.
In a previous note my focus was on how the banks had got themselves into a grand mess because they rushed into a culture that was short-term and focused more on individuals working for the banks than their customers.
The Cass / NCA report is a useful attempt to understand the cultural problems of the banks and what needs to be done to change those problems. It seems churlish of me to sound a note of concern with the analysis bearing in mind how much I have written on the need but, despite the work that has gone into the study, I do find some serious gaps in the assumptions, the recommendations and the risks.
One concern is that the study suggests banks (particularly the larger ones) are similar to any other large companies – like those in the oil sector (to which reference is made concerning culture change) – and should therefore be treated like those in other sectors. Unfortunately, banking is unlike any other sector.
- No other sector creates money;
- No other sector holds the rest of the economy to ransom through its systemic economic risk;
- No other sector is so intertwined with economies and governments.
For these reasons, the thought that banks have to be allowed to take care of themselves (which is a crucial assumption of the report) contains dangers that the report does not examine. While banks are intimately involved with other organisations in both private and public sectors, the report does not seem to share a view that wider society has a stake in them. The fact that general taxpayers are paying off the burden of their recent misdeeds is a real and proper concern. It is not just “customers” (a key focus of the report) that feel the problem of poor investment in IT or bad service – it is also all those affected by huge government deficits and cut-backs that have been the result of the banking induced crisis. I don’t see this recognition.
What this means is that banks cannot just be left alone to reflect on their cultures. There does need to be a societal involvement in the cultural thinking that shows banks understand what they are there for – which is different to most industries. This culture is not just about being sustainable or not creating “externalities” (like oil companies should be focused on – e.g. pollution) but on the central role that banks play in society and the huge risks that they provide. This short note is not the place to examine the role that banks should perform (although I have touched on that before – https://jeffkaye.wordpress.com/2012/02/05/banks-and-time-travel/) but their national and economic roles and their inherent risks have to be important aspects of their culture.
The mention of ethics in the banking system is a touchy one. Ethical codes are often there to be abused (viz. FIFA) but the banks perform such a key role in society that they should not be allowed to differ in how they develop ethics codes and they should be regulated around ethical behavior.
The word “ethics” appears fleetingly in the Cass / New City Agenda report. Yet, it should be the basis upon which culture is developed. It is via an ethical approach to its customers and wider society that banks need to be based. The report focuses on how banking culture has been “Sales” led (even excessively so) but this would not have happened if banking culture and banking leaders had been ethical in their approach.
Again, the report states that the banks operated a “Sales Culture” – and was excessive in that direction. Of course, all businesses have to operate a sales culture to a degree or they go out of business. But, the extreme form of “sales culture” that operated was enabled by top management.
It can be stated reasonably that banks operated (and still operate) without a culture of accountability. Another crucial organisational mandate that appears to be missing from the analysis in the report is this one – individuals within the banks seemed to be accountable to themselves or to just small groups. The businesses did not seem to have areas of key accountability for such fundamental mistakes and still do not. Any successful business or organisational culture requires accountability – culture is driven from the top so that it must be clear that “the top” has to be clearly accountable for major deviations.
This accountability has to be within the Board, Board Committees, Regulators and Auditors. The culture has to be clear that accountability is embedded within it.
This is linked to accountability, of course, but Governance has to include the oversight of business culture – which is itself wrapped within the overall purpose of the organization. Governance is, by law, the responsibility of the Board acting on behalf of shareholders. However, in the case of large banks – and this becomes a crucial requirement – societal governance should also be required. A bank’s board, when deemed to be large enough, should include Directors who are there to judge whether the bank is meeting its societal objectives – a privately owned, market-driven business but with key societal objectives. This is, therefore, linked to both accountability and societal inclusion. Having The Banking Standards Review Council under the auspices of Sir Richard Lambert is fine but this Council is likely to be dominated by the banks – indeed, Sir Richard is looking to the banks and building societies for members – a bit like the police governing the police. The BSRC (if it is to work at all) needs outside members who are not influenced overmuch by the banking fraternity.
- International Norms
Another problem for the banks (and the report) is that we now live in a global economy. As in the period leading up to the disasters of 2007/8, our banks did not act alone but were in a group of western banks throughout Europe and the USA that played the same game. Next time, the centre of the storm may be elsewhere.
This requires some real thought being given to how British banking will (if it adopts sustainable cultures) not be persuaded to ditch their ethics if others go haywire as in 2007/8. This requires international banking to be based on the same footing. It may require a set of ethical baselines such as the one that EITI (The Extractive Industry Transparency Initiative) has developed for that industry.
Covering all of the above is the need to banks to be properly sustainable – and the report does focus on ridding the industry of its short-termism. However, this is, again, for both the industry and for society to develop a sustainable path – as banks are often too big to be left to themselves and have shown a distinct lack of ability to judge what will make them sustainable.
- Risk and pay
The final issue I believe has been de-focused is that bankers pay themselves when they do well and just lose bonuses when they don’t. Assuming they work within the law, why are bankers paid as entrepreneurs on the upside but as staff on the downside?
If pay is to be maintained on the upside, then so does the opposite apply. Entrepreneurs are risk animals that bet their own money to reap fortunes if they succeed. A major flaw in our economies is how the financial sector and managers within it (to a reduced extent the same in other sectors) have captured the winnings from those with “skin in the game” – which used to be the shareholders.
The latter suffer the risk of loss on the downside, bankers do not. This should be changed.
21st Century Banking Culture
Society, Ethics, Accountability and Governance appear to be the basis for any banking system in the global economy of the 21st Century. While the report is highly practical and research based, leaders within the UK (not just bankers) should be developing the strategies for the future based on a society that will perform and that we want to be part of.
Banking is too important to be left to just practical considerations. Real leadership is required and unless societal, ethical, accountability and governance concerns are fully embedded into banking culture, the same problems will arise time and again.