The Spectre of Americanism

 

Americanismtitle3

With Donald Trump’s gracious acceptance of the GOP nomination, his speech was centred around the concept of Americanism. This ‘ism’ is nothing new but there is an ideology within the term that is no less concerning than many others of the same nature: a belief that there is one way of life, centred on an extreme form of an American ideal.

 

“Americanism: A World Menace” was the title of a book written in 1922 by a English writer and socialist (at the time, he was a Communist), William Thomas Colyer. He, together with his wife, Amy, had emigrated to the United States in 1915, a month after they were married, sick of the destruction of the First World War fought by elite monarchies and, perhaps naively, optimistic for the future in the new world. This hope was borne on the back of their reading of the American Constitution and the fight for freedom that those like Tom Paine had foreseen. William and Amy believed that the USA was ripe for Communism.

 

Until 1920, they worked for the cause of socialism, witnessing the Russian Revolution, with some equanimity, as a fight for the rights of common people against elite oppression. They saw the same in the capitalism of the USA, punctured by the need to value everything by its price, elitism and the corruption of business and politics. It was not too long before their naivety was shaken as the Palmer (or Red) Raids of 1920 shattered any remaining illusions.

 

In 1920, Charles Palmer, the left-leaning Attorney General, was almost killed by a bomb planted by some Italian anarchists. He secured the services of a young man to lead the fight against these terrorists and to round up all ‘alien communists’ living in the country. The young man, just twenty-four years of age, who we know as J Edgar Hoover, did as required and hundreds of such men and women were deposited in Deer Island Prison within Boston Harbour.

 

After enduring punishing conditions of extreme over-crowding, lack of food and drink, detailed cross-examinations and witnessing the suicides of several prisoners, William and Amy (two of a handful of English-speakers within a predominantly eastern European prisoner intake) were tried and sentenced to deportation. A group of human rights lawyers succeeded in having Judge Anderson reverse their sentence but Hoover was not one for giving up and a retrial succeeded in having them deported back to England in 1922.

 

William was an economist and, by now, a confirmed Communist. His book, Americanism, was published in that year and was a rasping attack on the American way of life as he had experienced it and which he compared to Prussianism, so soon after the First World War. He saw that the world had a decision to make: Americanism or Communism.

 

He saw Americanism as having a range of characteristics but these were simplified as:

 

  1. An overwhelming pride of race, based on the material development of the country achieved largely through the ability and industry of “foreigners”. Known locally as patriotism.
  2. The establishment of dollar-producing or dollar-collecting capacity as the absolute standard of value, covering every form intellectual and spiritual achievement. Known locally as “practical idealism” based on “equality of opportunity”.
  3. Glorification of “democracy” as an abstract idea, divorced from practical control by the rank and file. Known locally as “the union of efficiency and democracy under sane leadership”.
  4. General lawlessness and contempt for orderly procedure. Known locally under a great variety of flowery and meaningless names, of which “upsurging of the great heart of America” may be taken as an example.

 

When “Americanism” was published, Colyer was a Communist and had just suffered deportation. His vituperation should be seen in that light and he was, thankfully, mistaken in that the USA, for the next 94 years, pursued a direction of capitalism that (after the battles for human rights of the 1960’s) skated outside of rank Americanism, with due respect for a type of democracy, for basic human rights. While business and a dollar-focused valuation of everything remains, it is wrapped in a cushion of values that are often qualitatively robust even if the lack of scientific understanding amongst politicians (including a mistrust of climate change theory and evolution) rankles with other western nations.

 

Now, there is an attempt to revoke the balancing act that has been the USA and recoil into Trump’s Americanism. Based on patriotism, it is a businessman’s total and complete devotion to success measured by the dollar, a promise to provide a way out of the insanity of “political correctness”, an underlying refusal to condemn the gun lobby and the variety of vigilante attacks throughout the USA, that is seen as the natural outpouring of pent-up emotion.

 

Colyer’s four axioms, although written by a Communist, just deported, in 1922, are not too far from Trump’s Americanism of 2016.

 

Colyer wrote how, in “1920, the ‘Knights of the Klu Klux Klan’ began to make themselves felt as a power in modern American life. In that year, in pursuance of the purposes of their order “to maintain for ever white supremacy in all things” and “to keep eternally ablaze the sacred fire of a fervent devotion to a pure Americanism”, masked men wearing the dreaded white robe began to hold parades in southern cities, and to kidnap, flog, tar and feather men and women at will.”

 

That was 1920. Almost a century later, amongst the torment of the southern states as black men are arbitrarily killed by police and police are killed in retaliation, as terrorist atrocities are felt from France to America and, by their thousands upon thousands in the Middle East and Africa, as millions feel under-served by remote democratic institutions as shown by Brexit and the rise of Donald Trump, the spectre of Americanism rises again.

 

In 1848, Karl Marx wrote in The Communist Manifesto that the “spectre of communism” was “haunting Europe”. Donald Trump’s speech-writers could just as easily write, that in 2016:

“The spectre of Americanism is haunting the world. All the powers of the free world have entered into a holy alliance to exorcise this spectre.”

 

Americanism appears to be a far greater and more immediate danger today than Communism was in 1848 (although Communism’s perseverance and evolution into Stalinism and Maoism led to horrific disasters in the next century). The United States could be entering into a period of Americanism as much of the world reacts to the massive turmoil of banking failures in 2008, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Nice, Crimea, Boko Harum, Daesh, and toys with the spirit of Brexit, Le Penn, Haider, and the cry of “everyone for themselves”. Trump’s new doctrines, based on Americanism, calls into question all of society’s safeguards.

 

Colyer’s answer to Americanism was to urge the workers of Great Britain to line up with the workers of the Soviet Union. In 1926, Colyer resigned from Communist Party as Stalin gripped the Soviets ever tighter. The challenge now is to establish a 21st Century response to Americanism (or similar calls to so-called ‘patriotism’) that does not reverse the serious gains made by most in the world since the end of the Second World War, which included the ending of Naziism, Fascism, Stalinism and Maoism (and most other forms of Communism).

An inclusive Democracy needs to be refreshed, not stymied, by a popularism that Americanism extols. It is for all those who have worked for the establishment of human rights and basic qualities of life to double those efforts now before the spectre of Americanism is upon us.

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A People’s Charter for the Banks

 

In 1842, Feargus O’Connor led the working people of the United Kingdom into a general strike on behalf of the People’s Charter. The Chartists’ aim was for the House of Commons, then run by the elites of the landowning class plus some merchants and millowners after the 1832 reforms, to become more democratic. The six proposals were:

 

  1. A vote for every man over 21 years
  2. Secret ballots
  3. No land qualification for voters
  4. Payment for Members
  5. Equal constituencies
  6. Annual ballots

 

It took many years for the first five to be enacted and many more for women to achieve equality (something not even envisaged by the Chartists). The Chartists failed to drive change because the British economy continued to improve and the other motors for change (such as Trades Unions) were continuously provided with small (even if sometimes significant) improvements in factory conditions, better hours, better wages and the like. This meant that pressure for change in the way that the Chartists demanded were stifled by more practical changes that were seen to immediately impact the working classes.

 

However, the impact of elites continuing to run the country and ameliorated only by small improvements in conditions was (in hindsight) bound to result in extreme consequences. The First World War was a consequence of elites throughout Europe playing a game decidedly different to the vast majority of people and using them as mere playthings – whether in armies or in factories.

 

The BBC’s current six-parter, Tolstoy’s “War and Peace”, shows clearly who was in charge in 1805. That continued throughout Europe until 1918 at least after millions of lives were lost.

 

It may seem difficult to equate the financial crisis of 2007/8 and the consequences of that crisis to the class crises of the nineteenth century but the similarity of elites that are unwilling to give up any power over the economy remains. The elite may now be different (although bankers held great power in the nineteenth century as well) but the way that Banks and their allies in Governments in the UK (Conservative as well as Labour) see the rest of the country as mere playthings is no different.

 

A new film is about to hit the screens in London – “The Big Short”. Based on Michael Lewis’s book of the same name, published in 2010, it portrays the banking world in the USA as completely indifferent to the problems faced by society as they pursue their own, short-term gains and bonuses. Government is either unable or unwilling to address the problems because the banks are so important to the country – too big to fail – and also because most in Government do not understand what to do.

 

Just as the mill owners of the early nineteenth century were seen by landowners as a necessary partner for the future, Governments see bankers and banking in the UK as necessary for themselves. This means that they tolerate all but the very worst abuses.

 

The FCA – Financial Conduct Authority

 

The FCA is the organization that Parliament developed under the Financial Services and Markets Act 2000 to oversee the financial system. Part of its remit is:

 

The reduction of financial crime.

(1) The reduction of financial crime objective is: reducing the extent to which it is possible for a business carried on—

(a) by a regulated person, or

(b) in contravention of the general prohibition,

to be used for a purpose connected with financial crime.

(2) In considering that objective the Authority must, in particular, have regard to the desirability of—

(a) regulated persons being aware of the risk of their businesses being used in connection with the commission of financial crime;

(b) regulated persons taking appropriate measures (in relation to their administration and employment practices, the conduct of transactions by them and otherwise) to prevent financial crime, facilitate its detection and monitor its incidence;

(c) regulated persons devoting adequate resources to the matters mentioned in paragraph (b)

(3) “Financial crime” includes any offence involving—

(a) fraud or dishonesty;

(b) misconduct in, or misuse of information relating to, a financial market; or

(c) handling the proceeds of crime.

(4) “Offence” includes an act or omission which would be an offence if it had taken place in the United Kingdom.

(5) “Regulated person” means an authorised person, a recognised investment exchange or a recognised clearing house.

 

All this is within a framework of law that sits the financial community within itself. By this I mean that the regulator is charged with the above but only insofar that it does not harm banking competitiveness and so that the resources of the FCA are used efficiently under Section 2 of the law. While consumer information is called up in the law, there is no balancing of the “reduction” of financial crime against the needs of the consumer and nothing about how the financial system and banking in particular is to be used to benefit the overall British economy.

 

This means that the FCA is bound by rules that err on the side of the banking and financial fraternity – a financial brotherhood – and does nothing to impact the financialisation of the economy to which I referred in a previous blog.

 

Evidence of the ability of Government to “rebalance” the objectives of the law in favor of the banks is the recent decision of the FCA to shelve its report on the culture of banking and for it to work on an individual basis with banks (behind the scenes). As Michael Lewis’s book and the film so amply shows, culture is at the heart of the problem. The FCA’s step backwards under acting Head Tracey McDermott appears to be sold evidence of its inability under the current law to be effective on behalf of the British economy unless it has a leader within the FCA with enough integrity of his or her own to challenge the banks on behalf of all consumers and all those potentially impacted by wrongdoings of the banks – like Martin Wheatley. Ms McDermott is now no longer in the running for the Chief Executive position. Does anyone on the shortlist that Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osbourne, has interviewed come up to those exacting standards: someone that has the integrity to see through the shortcomings of the Financial Services and Markets Act 2000 (FSMA 2000) and is able to bring the banks into line so that they serve the economy?

 

I doubt it as this Government has shown repeatedly that it is hell-bent on balancing the books at the expense of all else – even if that means allowing banks to keep the economy from re-balancing to an economy that uses banks and finance from one where the banks suck the rest dry.

 

This means that the law needs to change. It is so important that the UK is “de-financialised” (like an addict that needs to be properly drawn from drugs) that we should seek the FSMA 2000 to be brought up to date with a Charter for economic improvement so that, at the very least, the FCA has to minimize financial crime not just reduce it and so that, in any decisions it makes, the needs for economic well-being override the considerations in Section 2 that could lead to favouritism towards bank and those individuals within that system.

 

Because it has never been shown that a massive banking system does anything other than reduces the ability of other industries to survive because it raises exchange rates, raises property values, sucks the best people into it, restricts business loans because of short-terminism, pays for short-term advantage and (often) criminality at the expense of good business decisions and overly impresses economically uneducated civil servants and politicians with their results.

 

The lessons of an elite taking hold of an economy and leading it to disaster have not been learned. The lessons of 1842 that led to the First World War and the lessons of 2007/8 have been sidelined as this Government now has a majority in the first-past-the-post House of Commons (still undemocratic) and a Chancellor who has decided that bashing the banks has gone far enough. He has done this without any notion of economic objectivity whatsoever.

 

We now need a People’s Charter for Banking and De-financialisation – maybe just two elements to start with:

 

Change the Financial Services and Markets Act 2000 to:

 

  • Section 6 – Minimize criminal wrongdoing not “reduce”
  • Section 2 – Add an over-riding requirement so that any decision of the FCA has to show that it is taken in regard to overall economic well-being of the country not just to the financial industry.

 

Just like those that had been left out of the elite ruling classes of the 1830’s and 1840’s, those that are not allowed entry to the financialised sector, i.e. the mass of people – the British public, need to challenge how decision-making in that sector, now taking far too much of the British economy and with very disputed benefits to the mass of people (just like early capitalism) need to agitate for change.

In the 1840’s, the Chartists were successful only in bringing the issues of the working class to the attention of the ruling classes. They did not succeed in most of their demands. It took decades until those demands were met and eighty years before women were given the vote. This country still has a House of Lords and unrepresentative democracy in the Commons as a result of first-past-the-post: we are very conservative. Nevertheless, when British people have their backs to the wall, they react. The FCA is putting British people’s back to that financial wall by their inability to tackle banking as it should be tackled – at the centre. With a pending recession in the UK – in the midst of austerity – this is a dangerous situation. Time to make changes.

 

 

 

 

Don’t Look, Won’t Find

DLN

 

Don’t Look, Won’t Find – Money Laundering in the UK

Transparency International – UK just published “Don’t Look, Won’t Find” which exposes enormous gaps in the UK’s ability to stop illicit money coming into the the country.

The report shows how all sectors, from banking to the enablers of money laundering like the accounting firms, legal firms, company registration firms to the sellers of final products and services like auction houses, private education, fail the test of oversight and reporting on a consistent basis.

This means that huge amounts (tens of billions of £’s) enter the country illegally from China, Russia, Africa and elsewhere – depriving those countries of the money they need and, as a by-product, pumping up house prices in London.

I had the privilege to Chair the Advisory Committee for this report – part of the Corrupt Capital project at TI-UK which aims to uncover how London (a major financial centre) needs to work hard to rid itself of corrupt capital that enters its system here and in the many tax havens to which it is connected world-wide.

Those who have written this report have done an excellent job of uncovering the chaos that exists in oversight and reporting systems in the UK.

 

Don’t Look, Won’t Find

Is FIFA-world just a microcosm of the real one?

Russia's president Vladimir Putin (left) and Fifa president Sepp Blatter

FIFA-world: a virtual world where you get ahead by what you pay and stay ahead by denying the evidence

“When we get bribed, we stay bribed.”

Jon Stewart on his Daily Show in the USA – his take-down of Sepp Blatter and FIFA. The legal onslaught on FIFA-world  has been 24 years in the making – 24 years before the legal process (headed by the US Attorney General Loretta Lynch) went into motion. As Stewart remarked, “even Switzerland” itself had moved on FIFA.

Yet, Sepp Blatter was overwhelmingly affirmed by FIFA delegates for another four years – on the votes of Africa, Asia and Platini’s France amongst others. This was despite the obviously dangerous legal claims made against many senior employees and representatives of FIFA by the US and Swiss legal authorities. This was despite the fact that Blatter has been President of FIFA for so long – it has been on his watch.

The President of FIFA has (under its latest statutes) the following responsibilities:

32. President

The President represents FIFA legally.

He is primarily responsible for:

a)  implementing the decisions passed by the Congress and the Executive Committee through the general secretariat; 

b)  supervising the work of the general secretariat;

c)  relations between FIFA and the Confederations, Members, political bodies and international organisations.

Only the President may propose the appointment or dismissal of the Secretary General.

The President shall preside over the Congress, the Executive and Emergency Committee meetings and those committees of which he has been appointed chairman.

The President shall have an ordinary vote on the Executive Committee and, whenever votes are equal, shall have a casting vote.

If the President is absent or unavailable, the longest-serving vice-president available shall deputise.

Any additional powers of the President shall be contained in the FIFA Organisation Regulations.

As FIFA’s legal representative on planet earth, it seems clear that Blatter would be held accountable for all its actions whether he knows about them (and he claims a complete absence of knowledge) or not. Yet, FIFA members, by a great majority, supported his continued Presidency.

For some of us, this seems absurd. For those of us brought up under democratic systems, where wrongdoing in an elected body is normally punished by the voter, the inability of FIFA to sort itself out appears naïve as does the apparent understanding of the electorate. Yet, to many of those who voted for Blatter, their response was entirely logical.

How FIFA-World Seems to Work

The world has changed over the last fifty years to an extent that is now becoming highly visible. Until the 1950’s, the great western powers and the USSR held military power (hard power) over the rest of the world. One by one, states outside this power block became politically independent. Asian economic power-houses like Japan grew quickly and then China began its sustained and dramatic economic renaissance. After the break-up of the Soviet Union, instead of democracy, economic power brokers developed (with Putin at the top of that tree).

While we understandably focus on military and security threats posed by those like ISIS, the world has been moving on – with economic growth at the centre (softer power).

However, instead of the west’s domination, there are now various centres of economic power – such as China, India and Brazil – which are breaking down long-established norms.

These norms (such as the desire by Western nations to link good governance with economic aid) are under real threat as newly enriched nations like China care less about the good governance of its supply and customer base outside China than it does internally and less than the stated aims of the earlier economic hegemonies.

This compounds the pent-up pressure on the governments of the newly developing world that may be tired of the continuous pressure put on them to do more of what the west wants them to do – such as reduce corruption and improve good governance. This is not the reaction necessarily of their people (most are completely sick of the bribery and corruption that exists, often sick of the absence of real democracy and the absence of real representation) but in many parts of the world, the people do not have a say.

Also, populations are torn between a natural desire to see things properly run (good governance) and feeding their kids or having a roof over their heads. Elsewhere, like in Russia, the government has a rigid control over their people. The same is true in China.

Finally, nations are now (because of their own economic strength and because of alliances with those like China) less likely to fold against the old hegemonies of the USA and Europe.

For all these reasons, FIFA-world seems symbolic of the new world order that is taking place where an organisation that has been corrupt for so long is able to maintain good relationships with its supporters through its economic success and the ability to pass on that financial success to a range of nations and individuals – upon which it also survives. It pays to support Blatter – even if you are in receipt of dirty money.

Despite pressure from the west (notably the UK – via, mainly, its newspapers like the Sunday Times while government was just as mercantilist when London was in the running for the World Cup), FIFA refuses to change from the inside. As there is no ability to march into Switzerland and take over the company by force (the 19th Century ideal), the only method remaining is via international law as applied by the US Attorney General and the Swiss. It has taken 24 years to get to this stage.

What could we be learning from FIFA-world?

This microcosm represented by FIFA-world must have lessons for the new real world order but it is not easy to overcome the concern that fifty years of working towards better governance (e.g. where we have seen increases in the number of democracies throughout the world) is under threat.

The natural focus on material wealth as the highest priority for all nations and all people is understandable. Worldwide poverty indicators are reducing (even if mainly from Chinese economic success). As Maslow showed so clearly in the 1930’s, most people focus on material wealth creation well before there is a serious thought given to quality of life issues.

MAslow

This is clearly seen in practice as the world pursues economic gains even in those countries that are already wealthy. Even the safety and maintenance of nature and the environment becomes translated into a form of costed “natural capital” so that it can enter into our economic thinking. If it has no valuation methodology, then humans seem unable to evaluate it. If we can’t count it, we can’t imagine it, apparently.

This means that issues like corruption are treated as secondary to economic benefit or economic security in most nations. It is no longer just a case of saying “Corruption is bad, stop!” because the complexity of the each situation means that, in the short term, those who gain through corruption and / or being part of a corrupt environment do not visualise the problems quickly enough. Moral crusades are not high enough on Maslow’s hierarchy (which was developed for marketing purposes but serves as a useful tool elsewhere).

Even the use of legal sanction by the USA, while applauded by many in developed nations, is not so well received elsewhere. Blatter knows how to utilize this reaction by appealing to the sensitivities of nations that do well out of FIFA economically and see themselves (as nations and individuals) threatened economically by the ending of corruption. This is not much different from oil-rich nations like Angola preferring to sell to China than the west – because no-one in China is demanding good governance from Sonangol, the dos Santos-owned oil company. It is similar to tribal leaders in Afghanistan that react badly to the west’s demands for an end to corruption in that country.

Those legal sanctions operating in the West (through a range of anti-money laundering devices, FCPA, Bribery Act and the like) can have great power when used against corporations. They are now extra-territorial in scope and can remove any one nation’s or company’s ability to protect themselves from legal onslaught. However, in the UK, for example, implementation of laws such as the Bribery Act are completely under-resourced so reliance has been placed on the US to widen its military policing role to one of legal challenge – where an individual using US assets (banking, currency or legal) is liable.

Such legal sanction needs to be policed (a) by more than just the USA and (b) in a way that is not seen as hegemony by former military world powers.

The first requires resources and a willingness to attack the problem; the second is far more subtle – a need to assess how to convince the world that corruption is hugely damaging to economies, sectors or society and even security (as is seen in Nigeria, Iraq, Afghanistan and many others vulnerable nations where armed forces are depleted by funding being ransacked by a few elites) when the benefits are clearer than the problems.

As an article in today’s National Post in Canada shows so well, giving the World Cup to a country well down Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Indicator (CPI) is asking for trouble. Yet, not giving the World Cup to such nations (which are developing nations in need of such investment and focus) until they have cleaned up their act would be seen to be counter-productive – and construed as anti-poor. There is no support for such a move.

What needs to happen is that good governance is seen as a central tenet of major corporations and of governments (national and local) and, for this to happen, a huge and relentless shift needs to take place in the way the non-FIFA world works so that the real economic needs of people are met while the ugly needs of vested interests that stand to gain through corruption are not.

For corruption to be minimized should be seen as one of the world’s major aims – where we need nations to meaningfully sign up to this in the same way as we sign up to human rights as corruption erodes human rights as well as any impediment known to humankind.

FIFA-world is a microcosm of how the real world tolerates corruption and the 24-year corruption story in FIFA is by no means finished. We need to learn from that story not just to fix FIFA-world but to fix the way the world tolerates corruption.

Note: I am a Trustee of Transparency International – UK

Lying to Ourselves over PFI – Private Finance Initiative

Ashmole-Academy-817x389

PFI was Government outsourcing at its worst as the Independent has uncovered. There is a saying “There are no free lunches” but politicians like to pretend that there are.

PFI was a scheme to bring forward capital spending for hospitals, schools, care homes and others areas of under-funded public utilities without showing it in spending profiles – without being honest and transparent with the public about what it was doing.

Ally this to the cozy relationship between certain politicians and those in the building and construction industry and the inability of civil servants to really understand enough about the risks to dissuade politicians and the recipe was in place.

What we have is a burden on our public sector that will not impact the politicians that made the decisions but will have grave (in some cases literally) consequences for those who will be unable to be provided with the care they need as costs in our public sector rise over the next few decades as the bills are paid.

Back in 1998, when I was a Trustee / Governor at a local school in North London, I identified that the school needed to be rebuilt. It was crumbling, had asbestos, its electrical wiring was unsafe, roofs were collapsing and let in vast amounts of rain water and the school had to make use of temporary facilities that were installed 30 years before. There was a real danger that the school would be closed at some time in the future unless radical steps were taken and the only answer was to rebuild.

I made a presentation to the Board of Governors in 1998 where I proposed that, while PFI was an option being actively touted by Government as a panacea, we should not touch it. In Powerpoint slides, printed and shown on an overhead projector (we could not afford the computer equipment) I tried to persuade reluctant but well-meaning local people to reject the obvious answer because of “long-term high charge over 30 years” and loss of control over our own assets. The slide shown 17 years ago is below:

1998

The school, now Ashmole Academy in Barnet was built without PFI – although it took until 2004 to see it through. Eleven years’ later, the school (where I was Chair for 12 years from 2002 until 2014) remains in excellent condition and is an excellent school – one of the best in England.

When this Government began its enquiry into school buildings a few years’ ago, it commissioned Sebastian James and his team that produced the James Report.

This report, to which a few of us from the board at Ashmole made representations and met with members of the Report team prior to publication, did not condemn PFI but simply said:

Private Finance Initiative

A procurement route established in 1995, and more widely adopted since 1997. It is an important route for much Government spending on assets as it transfers significant risks to the private sector. PFI requires private sector consortia to raise private finance to fund a project, which must involve investment in assets, and the long-term delivery of services to the public sector.

As a result, PFI was allowed to continue on the basis that it meant to provide a “transfer of risks to the private sector”. For this transfer (which is really nonsense as the transfer was merely to get public sector spending off the books and into the books of the companies), the construction and service companies were handsomely compensated.

Not only that, but local and national public sectors were completely overwhelmed by the prospect of architectural excellence rather than practical building and this resulted in grandiose schemes that impress architects and win awards but ended up being hard to maintain, costly to build and a long-term drain on finances.

The lessor, now the School or the local authority is then stuck with a long-term agreement which it has to pay – at costs which are far greater than those which a Government could have loaned the money at – just to get costs off the books so no-one would notice that the financial burden was excessive while the new facilities were being built.

As to the risk being transferred, at Ashmole, we decided to take on such risk and then make sure that we had good contractors, good architects, good project management overseen by knowledgeable Board directors / trustees and good contracts in place. The risk was normal – it was on the suppliers not the school as we were the customers. The risk issue is nonsense.

The James Report is now forgotten but should have been a reminder that PFI was a major accident waiting to happen.

The Independent’s Report highlights not just the crippling costs of PFI but also the problems that are met when government (local and national) become swept away by those in the private sector who promise a free lunch and by their own lack of transparency and inability to understand business.

We entrust Government with much of our future but, while we condemn those that allowed PFI to take place in such a shambolic way, we should bear in mind that we may be expecting far too much in an area of greatest risk – the place where public and private sector meet. Knowledge and capability on either side are varied but neither really “gets” the other. This is why banking crises will always appear from time to time and why outsourcing of public sector often delivers much less than “expected”.

The place where public and private sector meet is a dangerous one and is less well understood than the specific sectors themselves. However, one way that such disasters as PFI could be reduced is through transparency – it was the desire to keep costs “off the books” that took us into PFI when extra expenditure on the public sector financed by low-costs Treasuries would have been a far better investment.

However, the pressure to falsely account was made by the pressure put on politicians by keeping government spending down even in the face of greatest need. It is why, even today, the NHS funding row is all about showing how the £8bn will be afforded in years to come when we all really know that we have very little idea what the UK’s finances will look like in three to five years. Good management of finances does not mean we can possibly be that accurate (no company really believes it knows how it will be doing beyond twelve months and beyond that, forecasts are but guides based on spreadsheets – the same is true of economies but with thousands more indeterminate variables).

So, PFI and similar comes from our desire to lie to ourselves and for politicians to lie to a public that is implicit in the lie.

We need to educate ourselves to reality by being more transparent.

“Blind Eye” Culture in Business

A good article written by Rowan Bosworth-Davies and posted on Linkedin today prompted me to respond favourably as follows:

This article has a shown a good understanding of “blind eye” corruption that is, unfortunately, at the top of many banks and many businesses. It could be argued that HSBC, Tesco, GSK and many others (from the UK alone) pushed bottom line growth at the expense of ethics and (often) the law while senior management profess no knowledge whatsoever of the problems that were under way in their companies.

When I wrote “Last Line of Defense” 15 years ago, I tried to explain in the book the process that a business (written there as a fictionalised US defense and aerospace business) went through that propelled it to commit corrupt acts while keeping the boss clean. Having worked in that industry, it was something that I had seen at first hand and 15 years’ later, it persists. Businesses are subject to major stresses and opportunities that drive them to the edge of acceptability.

For large companies, the penalties need to be huge to stymie the desire to do wrong and they need to be enforced. Prevention is the best cure, of course, but that depends on rigorous independent scrutiny by NED’s /Independent Directors that has not showed itself to work at HSBC.

It needs external auditors who should be required to carry out audits of potential corruption and the company’s adherence to processes that prevent it.

It requires leadership that drives in a culture of ethics throughout.

It requires a business that makes it clear that is has to know that each area adheres to its ethical culture and where there are no areas of secrecy – again, as is claimed at HSBC.

The banking crises and the problems at Wall-Mart, Tesco, GSK and elsewhere show that the problems that bedevilled the Defense and Aerospace industry (and may still do in some areas) is common throughout finance and elsewhere. This culture is one that has been tolerated by Governments – especially in the UK where prosecutions are not made if there is doubt of success. This is a problem in corruption and money laundering that makes top business people complacent. Only in the USA does there appear to be a drive to resolve this problem – at least via prosecution.

So and so’s. How Some Banks Con

What does HSBC stand for? What do we do about it?

“so and so” – an undefined person considered beneath contempt

  • So, HSBC is shown by the BBC to have systematically organized illegal tax benefits for hundreds or thousands of its customers through its Swiss subsidiary. No surprise.
  • So, HMRC (the UK’s tax collection agency) has recovered only £135 million since that time in tax and penalties out of billions that are illegally saved each year. No surprise.
  • So, HMRC and this government agreed with the Swiss authorities (after the leaks about HSBC were found) not to prosecute except where the cases would be virtually guaranteed to succeed. No surprise.
  • So, the then Sir Stephen Green (now Baron Green), then HSBC’s CEO at the time is not talking and the Conservatives (via the chief Secretary to the Treasury – David Gauke) say that there is no evidence that he directly knew of what was going on. No surprise.
  • So, the Conservatives demand to know why Ed Balls, now Shadow Chancellor and then City (of London) Minister did nothing at the time. No surprise.
  • Anyone see the actions that the issues and finger-pointing provoke? Just politicians ranting at each other while the poor taxpayer – those “so and so’s” who have been squeezed mercilessly since the banking industry exploded in 2007/8 – is left with the bill – lower wages and austerity.

Meanwhile, the real “so and so’s” who should have been prosecuted and some doing time in prison are seen as outside the justice system – no longer within the law despite proof of a multi-billion pounds swindle on the UK.

So what?

Well, there has been extreme tax fraud – no-one denies it. Even HSBC accepts that they have had to make major changes in their banking practices – although, according to staff who have left HSBC this did not really make any progress until well into 2011.

Sir Stephen Green may well not have known the specifics. CEO’s of big banks (and most large organisations) are sheltered from the bad things going on but it is no defence to state that they did not know “specifically”. CEO’s are appointed as heads of such organisations and set the tone – the culture – of any organisation. As such, they are culpable for any major misdeeds that occur. In his excellent book on RBS, Shredded, Ian Fraser takes apart any claims that CEO’s can be said to have stood outside the fray. Maybe RBS was even worse than HSBC but senior management set the culture and reap the rewards of profits – Sir Stephen would have benefitted personally from the gains made through tax fraud in the Swiss subsidiary and, if he did not know what was happening (just as Henry II is alleged to have made the claims about Thomas Becket’s murder in 1170), then his lack of pro-activity in finding out would have been a joke. We don’t seem to have learned much in 845 years!

Anyway, if Sir Stephen Green knew nothing and is as innocent as a puppy, then how can Ed Balls (City Minister at the time) be accused of knowing everything by the people who then appointed Sir Stephen Green (now Baron Green of Hurstpierpoint) to Government in 2010?

Is there really a case against Ed Balls when the good Baron knew nothing, apparently? David Gauke sounded ridiculous on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme today because he was being so. Stupid political points were being made when the “so and so’s” who rule the world (the bankers) are freed from the rigours of the law (and any ethical codes) and continuously benefit.

Public Accounting for the “So ands so’s”

So, Margaret Hodge (the Chair of the British Parliament’s Public Accounts Committee – PAC) states that she will bring those responsible before her Committee. She states, quite properly, that the UK is not “aggressive enough” is tackling these issues. Even though the issues occurred during the previous Labour Government’s period in office, Mrs Hodge states very clearly that Stephen Green has a responsibility – he either “knew” of the tax dodges or was “asleep at the wheel” – quite right!

The PAC should now (seven years too late) point to what should be done: not just who is culpable but how the UK will recover the lost tax and how the UK will not stand for repeated situations. The USA fines banks billions of dollars. The UK (with the political establishment too much in hock to the banks and the civil servants and HMRC too timid and weak) does almost nothing but whimpers about no-one being responsible and it being too difficult to prove.

Which “so and so’s” are running the madhouse?

Isn’t it time that those who have suffered so much from the banks’ failures begin to see some recompense? This is not a desire for revenge but failures of this size have not led to a discernible change in this country’s culture or efforts to ensure such failures do not recur.

HSBC seems not to have been penalized for tax avoidance schemes and a culture that would not be tolerated even at Tesco. The UK has a need to change the way it deals with abhorrent schemes and aberrant behaviours. Politicians and those who work in the public sector need to feel the pressure that the public wants them to be under – pressure that needs to result in the defence of public needs. If it does not, then Syriza in Greece was an outcome of such lack of public interest and UKIP in the UK is another (although not quite the anti-aberrant banking behavior that is needed). If this Government does not ensure that the “so-and-so’s” aren’t allowed to run the country, then May’s general election in the UK will see an even more angry electorate ditching them.

Banging the Cultural Drum for Banks

 

Banging the Cultural Drum for Banks

Banging the Cultural Drum for Banks

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.

 

  1. Society

 

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.

 

  1. Ethics

 

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.

 

  1. Accountability

 

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.

 

  1. Governance

 

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.

 

  1. 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.

 

  1. Sustainability

 

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.

 

  1. 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.

Why use GDP for our EU Membership Fees?

There was some useful analysis in the Financial Times on how the charge for the UK’s membership is calculated but the real question should be how the UK’s membership fee is actually derived and whether it is proper to do so in that way.

75% of our membership fee is based on Gross National Income – see Eurostat website – basically GDP plus overseas resident income less foreigners’ income from the UK.

The base of GDP (so well explained in Diane Coyle’s recent book “GDP“)  is fraught with problems as GDP is a measure of gross output in reality and not a real measure of wealth. In addition, it seems that there is no sense of income per head of population so that we could be getting poorer per head and still pay more into the EU.

The focus on GDP (imports and VAT making up the rest of the membership fee) should be what we focus upon. While sales figures may be fine as the base for membership clubs, using it as the major source of our EU fee is problematical and deserves more scrutiny as GDP was never intended to become the source for such calculations but is a lazy measurement – ignoring, for example, factors for wealth per capita.

In a 21st Century organisation such as the EU, the cost of running the central bureaucracy should be something that is transparent, understood and rational. It is now time for a thorough review of our membership fee – and an understanding of how we are taxed to pay for the EU political hub in Brussels.

The USA rebelled over taxation without representation and it is interesting that we in the UK (the electors) have never been asked about this issue – maybe minor in terms of our GDP but clearly a raw nerve. There is a rebellion around the concept of the UK within the EU and the fact that our membership costs are not understood (by the Treasury as well as the rest of us by all accounts) does need to be remedied.

 

How Corrupt Are the Banks? Corrupting Cultures.

“Rigging the system to fix their bonuses. The word “corruption” is not enough to describe what they were doing.”

 

So stated one expert observer on Radio 4’s Today programme this morning (November 12, 2014) about the Foreign Exchange corruption in the world’s banking systems. UBS, RBS, Citibank, JP Morgan and HSBC were fined $3.4bn and Barclays is still to settle.

 

The travails at Tesco on which I have recently written, appear almost trivial beside the corruption (and, yes, “corruption” is the word to describe what was happening) that pervaded the western world’s banking systems leading up to and well beyond 2007.

 

The Bank of England apparently feels exonerated by the fact that no-one there knew anything about the foreign exchange mis-dealings at the five (or six) banks now fined. Just like the protestations at Tesco’s auditors (PwC) who, after 30 years, knew nothing about the culture changes that were at the root cause of Tesco’s recent failings.

 

Culture is the root of corruption

 

Francis Fukuyama in his excellent books “Political Order and Political Decay” and “The Origins of Political Order” showed how culture is at the root of society at the national level.

 

This is as true of companies – complex adaptive systems if ever there were any – as of nations. Companies are directed entities and depend on senior management and Boards allied to the competitive and regulatory environment in which they exist for the culture that they employ. The culture of every business is different – depending on the specific people they employ, the rules they employ, the country and region they exist in and the external environment.

 

The culture of any business organization is not a secret to those working within in it and is not a secret to those who work closely with it.

 

When a culture goes bad, as it clearly did in the case of Tesco and on a much broader and deeper scale in the case of the banks, it is not sudden and evolves as a result of changes that are both internal and external. Culture change has been the topic of many books and papers since well before the advent of quality management and Deming but these books tend to dwell on how to improve the culture to one of quality control or of “excellence” (as in Tom Peters’ “7 S’s”).

 

Unfortunately, there is little literature on how to understand corrupting business cultures in order to make changes that impact early enough so that customers, the business and shareholders are not hurt. The issue with banks is that nations have been hurt as a result of the toxic atmosphere in these institutions and the noxious emissions that resulted.

 

This cultural health and safety aspect of banking is clearly not understood by regulators (nor, indeed, by Directors and Audit Committees let alone external audit firms). Regulations are all about legal change and regulators are, to a large extent, ticking and checking against a set of procedures in the same way that external auditors carry out their roles.

 

The prime aim of such regulators seems to be to do a job so that they cannot be blamed for any failures. The Bank of England – crucial to the proper oversight of our financial systems – has failed so often in the past ten years but now seems comforted that no-one inside the BoE knew what was going on. RBS’s own (relatively) new CEO (Ross McEwan) voiced his anger on the BBC at the actions of “a very small group” of foreign exchange traders ruining everything for the many good people that work for RBS. He was asked the right question by the BBC interviewer (Kamal Ahmed) – “is culture changing enough”? McEwan responded that it was not changing quickly enough. But, the bad culture became institutionalised (as Ian Fraser’s excellent “Shredded” showed)  and the thought that senior management did not know of such a culture existing within such a key area of the bank is too sad to be true.

 

Walk into any office of any organization and any seasoned business manager will detect the culture. Ask some questions and listen to the responses. Any organisation is based on how its culture works and who benefits from that cultural response to its aims and ambitions.

 

Short-termism, where bonuses are made through short-term risk-taking and often corrupt dealing, is bred in cultures that are knowable. For management to claim not to be aware is ludicrous. As many senior bankers said around 2008/9, they knew the culture was wrong but could not stop it as everyone (every bank) was the same – no-one was willing to stop.

 

Fukuyama describes well how corrupt societies work where lack of trust exists around the centre (e.g. government) and where corruption is rife. No-one is wiling to be the first to pay their proper taxes, for example, if no-one else does. The same was true with the banks – everyone was corrupt, so who was going to stop the game? No-one. Now, no-one trusts the Banks – supposedly, a central plank on which wider society floats.

 

With the foreign exchange corruption, which occurred much more recently, there seems to be little or no excuse. The banks have been going through huge structural re-assessments since they sank in 2008 and senior management were being changed along with it. The Bank of England should have been focused on critical market areas (Foreign exchange transactions in London – 40% of the world’s transactions take place here – are hardly trivial) and should not have been unaware of the overhang of a corrupt culture in UK banks. To claim otherwise is nonsense.

 

The culture within regulators has to be changed along with the banks. While no-one claims they are corrupt cultures, a culture of defensiveness, box-ticking, shifting blame and lack of knowledge is the worst cultural set for a regulator. They need (like external auditors) to be responsive to societal needs – not tick and check but pro-actively understanding the organisations they are supposed to be regulating (or auditing). This is not an easy task for organisations that appear to be completely incapable of doing this important job – not wanting to rock the boat before it sinks. But, rocking the boat may throw out those who are bent on sinking it before it sinks – that is what good regulation (or auditing) is all about.