Gulliver’s Travails – HSBC’s Satire on the rest of us

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It seems like Jonathan Swift’s best act of satire has been mixed with Robert Louis Stevenson’s best story-telling and then updated to the 21st Century as HSBC were derided before the House of Commons Treasury Committee today (25th February, 2015).

Nick Shaxson wrote “Treasure Islands” about tax havens but even he could not have foretold what looks like a complete satire on British society perpetrated by our biggest bank.

The Chair and CEO of HSBC Holdings (Stuart Gulliver and Douglas Flint) may well have been crafted by Swift and Stevenson. Lemuel Gulliver and Captain Flint (or his parrot that sat on the shoulder of Long John Silver) are two of the greatest characters in British fiction.

Gulliver’s Travels was (especially in its pre-Bowdlerised version) a satire on government and the British people.

Treasure Island was a story about man’s greed.

How odd that its two best-known characters come together before the Commons treasury Committee – both trying their best to defend their own position and that of their bank’s.

The Satire

HSBC are surely being disingenuous or maybe downright satirical pouring scorn on the general public. As they have been dealt blow after blow around money laundering, gold pricing, Swiss bank tax evasion and others, the satire has grown.

We sit open-mouthed at the sight of senior business folk that have earned £ millions but who take no overall account for the problems that were caused on their watch. Banking is now held in total contempt by most yet no-one has been brought to account in the UK since the banking-induced recession in 2007/8.

To the banks, the rest of society appears to be merely a group of Lilliputians finding a giant on the beach but being so impressed by their size and strength that we can do nothing.

To the banks, the rest of society appears to be like treasure chests that are theirs to own.

This is the reversal of their original intention – which was to lubricate business and to enable tomorrow’s investments to be made earlier. Society needs to find a way out of the satire that is being played on itself and what better opportunity is there than in the dual presentation of Swift and Stevenson’s characters before us?

No Impunity?

It is very hard to feel empathy for wealthy bankers who have presided over such failings. Douglas Flint points out that he has not taken bonuses for some time and Stuart Gulliver believes that banks are now being held to higher account than the Church and the armed services. The first is irrelevant and the second is a disgraceful statement that does much dis-service to any organization that has made so many gross errors of judgement and suffers so little governance – governance that is only applied when mistakes are found out.

The ability of senior bank staff in the UK to maintain complete impunity from prosecution remains a singular insult to the rest of the population that has seen real wage deflation since 2007/8.

However hard it is to bring bankers to justice under UK law, there seems to be as little chance of action now as there was when Gordon Brown was snuggling close to that community when the roof caved in.

HMRC appears complicit in its investigations since the receipt of whistle-blown data five years ago but that should not inhibit the UK’s investigators from doing more than the Treasury Committee – which seems to accept that it cannot find anything out before it goes wrong time after time after time and just hopes that HSBC gets it right sometime.

Messrs Gulliver and Flint had an uncomfortable day today and I am sure that they are working hard to make things right. Yet, claims that they did not know what was going on in Switzerland (or elsewhere where the bank failed) are weak claims that have not been sufficiently critiqued. When HSBC bought the Swiss private banks, they knew the secrecy laws in that country and they knew that there were major risks. To adhere to the escape clause of Swiss secrecy in a UK-registered company with world-wide shareholders seems to be an attempt to escape responsibility for any problems that might ever be encountered when an acquisition is made.

The reputational losses to HSBC as a result of the acquisition is substantial. HSBC’s shareholders should be mounting a class action on that basis alone as today statements were made that seemed to suggest that when HSBC makes an acquisition in a place of opacity, no matter what the outcome the senior staff that signed off on the acquisition cannot be held to account.

That is in addition to the nonsense that HSBC Board members should be relieved of governance responsibilities if there is secrecy in a jurisdiction.

This is surely a great satire perpetrated on the rest of us. Someone does need to unravel it. Swift originally wrote Gulliver’s Travels as a gross satire on society. We should not allow Gulliver’s Travails (and Flint’s) be Bowdlerised in the same way.

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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.

See-through Society – transparency

Cleaning Up

Chuka Umuna, the Shadow Business Secretary, recently called for companies in the UK to declare their tax payments to Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs (HMRC). This followed the widely reported, bad publicity surrounding the minimal tax payments made in the UK by Amazon, Google, Starbucks and many others. Whilst not wishing to name and shame, he believes that all companies should glory in the tax they pay. Justin King, head of Sainsbury’s, one of the big four food retailers in the UK, made a similar statement, suggesting that consumers could make change happen through their custom. International Corporations have been cleaning up by transferring their tax liabilities to low tax regimes and tax havens – they can virtually choose where to pay tax.

Nick Clegg, the leader of the Liberal Democrats and Deputy Prime Minister, states in his most recent letter to LibDem members: “The idea of combining a strong economy with a fair and transparent society is something that will also be seen in an international context this year when we host the G8 in Northern Ireland.”

Transparency is becoming the mantra of the well-meaning in society and many would say “about time, too”. While not the answer to all of societies’ ills, it is a precursor to re-directing society towards solving some of the greatest problems we have – because transparency of key information allows people (civil society) to make informed decisions – either on their own (through the marketplace) or through their government.

Sweeping away the leaves

For years, organisations like Transparency International have campaigned for dramatic improvements in the way governments, publicly owned organisations and companies provide important information. The danger with secrecy (and the UK remains a very secretive country) is that beneath the opacity of information lie secrets that those with vested interests wish to keep hidden. Whilst secrecy is always claimed by Governments to benefit all of us where they wish to enforce it, the evidence is usually to the contrary. The benefits of secrecy accrue to vested interests and results in economic mismanagement at best – at worst, in countries which are, for example, resource-rich and economically poor, it leads to mass corruption, impoverishment of the mass of people, illness and suffering.

Economics and economies thrive on the open availability of good information and only monopolies thrive on secrecy. It is only when information is made available that proper judgments can be made by the mass of participants in the marketplace.  In a world population of billions, markets can only work where information is not controlled from the top down. Stockmarkets and financial markets depend on the freest possible flow of information to the widest audience and there has been a progressive move towards freer access to information along with the spread of technology that enables it to be used. The driving force is the same human one that drives freedom and democracy. There is an inherent motor behind individual freedom and the right to self-govern and the same motor drives transparency because it is with transparency that the potential can be seen and with transparency that informed decisions can be made.

Transparency is not closing your eyes when the wind blows

In the UK, a nation that always appears to be governed by a conservative mindset where change is difficult, where the Official Secrets Act dominates, where GCHQ and CCTV appear ubiquitous, where the challenge to maintain a fairness between an open society and a society that bears down on terrorism often seems so far weighed in the latter’s direction, the motor for transparency often seems to be running in neutral. Conservatism (especially in England) means keeping things the same and with direction from the centre. This often means that vested interests operating from the centre or with the centre will disallow the move towards more openness. The Labour government provided a Freedom of Information Act, for example, to the chagrin of its then leader, Tony Blair., who was and remains a centrist. In a sense the provision of the Act was odd, because Labour remains as much a centrist party as the Conservatives. Nevertheless, the human motor for more transparency was stronger than the urge to opacity in this case – even if the Act is not itself allowing the freedoms desired.

Yet, it was a step towards a more open society and towards transparency that many countries would relish. A free press (the subject of so much discussion following and before Leveson) has helped to unearth the secrecy in banking, for example, that has plagued the UK for centuries. Manipulation of LIBOR, money laundering, sub-prime casino banking and support for tax havens may have helped to make London a key banking centre but it did not insulate the UK from the collapse in 2007 – it made it far worse – and “only when the tide goes out do you discover who was swimming naked” (Warren Buffet commenting on naked transparency). Sometimes, opening our eyes hurts.

Nothing to Hide?

One example of eye strain concerns the opacity of the banks and their cozy relationship with Government (not just in the UK). The secrecy allied to the special relationship has hindered the UK to an intolerable degree. Under Nigel Lawson (one of Margaret Thatcher’s Chancellors) the post-manufacturing society was hailed as the future as banks gained more freedoms and we all kept our eyes closed. Yet, we now see Germany as Europe’s economic motor because of its manufacturing prowess and the revitalization of the British motor industry (although hardly any it owned by Brits) is now lauded much louder than our “success” in financial services. The illusion of banking remains, though – as a key driver of the economy rather than what it really is – a provider of services that should assist the real economy. And the illusion has been propped up by a lack of real transparency which enables banking to remain a secret society.

Transparency is the ability to be strong enough to reveal information because there is nothing to hide. The true strength of transparency is the confidence that it portrays. So, the opportunity for companies and Governments to be open, to be transparent, only exists where there is not much to hide. Clearly, international companies that are paying virtually no corporation tax on sizeable UK earnings have something to hide; clearly, those (companies and individuals) who put money into offshore tax havens or to secrecy jurisdictions may have something to hide.

If banks and individuals had nothing to hide, Wegelin, the oldest Swiss bank, which is closing as a result of its plan to take on all the clients of Swiss banks that had decided to be more transparent with the US authorities over tax evasion would still be open for business. Their clients, who wished anonymity, made their way to Wegelin – which had been founded in 1741. They knew they were doing wrong and Wegelin knew the same – and the bank is closing after a hefty fine from US regulators and after 271 years. Secrecy was in the bank’s DNA – it could not evolve to the realities just beginning to dawn in the 21st Century. It became extinct.

So, lack of transparency in a world with eyes opening can be also hurt and be expensive and the US executive is now proving to be vigilant on  behalf of transparency on a world-wide basis – as is the US Congress which passed legislation in 2010 called Dodd-Frank. Part of this related to section 1504 which requires extractive industry companies registered with the SEC (Security and Exchange Commission) to disclose their revenues and taxes paid on a country by country basis worldwide. This includes all companies registered on the NYSE no matter where they are based. The EU looks to be following this example so that the people of resource-rich, economically poor countries will know how much money their precious natural resources raise in annual income and then can follow through what their Governments do with that money.

However, the American Petroleum Institute and the US Chambers of Commerce (vested interests if ever there were) are trying to fight back and have initiated a law suit in the US to nullify section 1504

How curious that libertarians fight on behalf of secrecy – the proponents of a free market arguing against a main tenet of economics – free information.

Battle lines are being drawn – the light and the dark.

21st Century Schizoid Man, King Crimson’s take on Spiro Agnew, was written in 1969 but the 21st Century does even now witness such schizoid tendencies characterized by corporate and governmental secretiveness, emotional coldness and apathy that typifies the illness. The lack of openness is world-wide and exhibited by the Chinese authorities’ suppression of its Southern Weekly newspaper when an editorial criticizing Chinese leadership was thrown out and one supporting the leadership was superimposed. Anyone reading Martin Jacques book “When China Rules the World” would not be surprised at the suppression. It characterizes the central leadership of this “civilization state” but Jacques argues that we see it too much with western eyes. But, what if we in the West are right and democratic freedom and openness are the motors that drive our human endeavours? What if the Chinese have, for 2,000 years, actually got it wrong. As China grows stronger, the move away from freedom for information will intensify and Chambers of Commerce will battle against laws for transparency that they will argue provides Chinese firms with advantages. This is a battle that has to be fought world-wide.

Our pursuit of progressively greater freedom (whether press freedom, open markets, democracies, freedom of speech) and equality (of race, religion (or non-religion, sex, sexual orientation and more) appears to be the real motor rather than the schizoid tendencies of the centrist control of monopolies, dictators, and vested interests. Transparency is a hugely important base upon which this basic human drive can persist. In a post-2007 world where the risk is that wealth is being driven to the top 1%, the drive for transparency is fundamental.

Schools get fleeced – and we all watch

The Bureau of Investigative Journalism recently published an article (http://www.thebureauinvestigates.com/2012/09/25/schools-fleeced-by-it-scammers/comment-page-1/#comment-9117) following the exposure on Panorama (BBC 1) that schools in the UK had been “fleeced” by IT companies (“scammers”). The article and Panorama drew attention to schools which are burdened by the need to run themselves as businesses and are often ill-equipped to do so when set against the complicated requirements of funding, procurement, suppliers and the like.

 

The BIJ summed up the problem with the thought that the FMSiS (Financial Management Standard in Schools) had been wrongly abolished and that the Government should think again. It was abolished after it had become a paper ticking exercise as reported by the Government in 2010 in their White Paper – “The Importance of Teaching” – http://www.education.gov.uk/inthenews/inthenews/a0067711/government-announces-end-of-complex-school-financial-reporting-tool.

 

The BIJ article missed the fact that most of the schemes that Panorama reported on were entered into while the FMSiS was in place!

 

Why is Finance so hard for non-profits (public and private sector)?

 

This does not just happen in Schools – it happens wherever greater knowledge is brought to bear.

 

So, the banks have run out of control and, five years’ later, we remain stunned that the financial regulators did not see this coming – or even understand the huge range of sub-prime schemes, poor management controls, over-leveraging, bad morality, lack of risk aversion, inability for banks to fail, dislike of customers and similar.

 

In the same way, companies like Enron fooled their highly paid auditors (some of whom connived with them) – we never learned much from that or from the countless, other financial scams that have been served up on unsuspecting publics since at least the south Sea Bubble in 1720 and for thousands of years before.

 

But, we expect more from public sector and the third sector organisations that supposedly guard our taxes and donations. What makes it so hard for them to adequately ensure that the financial and support arms of those organisations are able to be a good as all those they work with?

 

Where the incentives are

 

Of course, much has been written about how the wealth potential of banks suck in those with the highest intelligence and motivation (and maybe those with the lowest ethics) and that the regulators are filled with those who cannot compete – maybe those who failed to make it in banking themselves.

 

Enron was full of highly motivated and driven people who bought into a scheme (or schemes) and worked like fury to implement their scam / scheme. The manipulation of an energy market was not understood by the regulators and auditors just as auditors and clients failed to understand how Bernie Madoff was making such returns on their “investments”.

 

In a money-driven economy, which has created tremendous wealth for society, there are, at the margins and even more in the centre, incentives provided to people that lure those who are massively motivated and driven to participate – to work 24 hours a day, to spend their time working up schemes to make money and their companies profitable. Business is a money-driven part of the economy in a way that the non-profit sectors (be they public or private sector) are not. The latter are full of people driven (and maybe just as motivated) by other things – a passion for human rights, for education, for people, for society – but not for the thing that drives those they may meet at the interface of private sector and the non-profits.

 

As Galbraith wrote in The Affluent Society, public goods are always at a disadvantage in a market-driven economy and the crucial problems always exist at the interface between the two.  I tackled this is a previous post – https://jeffkaye.wordpress.com/wp-admin/post.php?post=192&action=edit – and the inability of societies to establish how to provide the “social balance” to which Galbraith refers enables the problems to persist – such as the fleecing of schools in the UK.

 

Enabling the “social balance”?

 

The “social balance” (Galbraith ibid) is about how society reacts to private enterprise. The most obvious example is the automobile – private industry propels the development of cars but it is the public sector that provides the roads, traffic control and policing, emergency services and hospitals (usually), pollution control and similar. India is a great and recent example – http://uk.finance.yahoo.com/news/india-car-sales-soar-where-054302682.html. But, the ability of the private sector runs well ahead of the ability of the public sector to react.

 

Nowhere is this lack of social balance clearer than in the provision of expertise in “back office” areas in the public sector and in the third sector. While their front of office capabilities may be excellent, the non-profit sector cannot, in the main, recruit the best people (it cannot offer financial incentives to match anything like the private sector) and therefore its systems and processes fall well behind.

 

This is compounded by the continuous belief by government that they have to “do something” directly (like the FMSiS above) and in the third sector that anything spent outside of front end is a waste of money. Donors (whether governments, trusts and foundations, companies or individuals) suddenly have a different mindset as soon as they donate. How many would ask companies to stop spending on finance operations – yet, many donors insist that their donations can only be applied to front end work – the cause – and nothing to overheads. While it is good to keep overheads low, governance and financial management dictate that these “enabling” areas of any organization (like people management training) are as good as the front end operations so as not to stymie the work of the charity, NGO or pubic sector organization.

 

Having worked in all sectors (with most of my working life in the private sector) it is clear to me that the non-profit sectors are continuously starved of capability and expertise in the areas that could make them far more efficient and capable – not just to survive but also to enable far better work to be accomplished. If they work well it is in spite of the problems put in their way. Most don’t manage and the failures of the public sector to manage large IT projects, for example or the non-profit sector to survive continue.

 

So, how can the non-profits develop a response to the needed social balance so that they don’t get fleeced?

 

Pro-activity in the social balance

 

Governments and those who provide central governance to the non-profit sectors have undertaken so many actions and some have provided stability. But, each sector and those within it are challenged continuously.

 

What is needed is first, recognition that there is a problem. Each sector should assess where the main problems lie and government has to step up and signal that it will not do everything but begin to be the chief enabler for the non-profits. For example, restrictive funding for charities, whereby donors only provide money for front-end purposes, should not be allowed. The practice is akin to shareholders telling companies which part of the business their funding is allowed on. It is not a loan – it is a donation and restrictions mean more bureaucracy and less ability for the charity to manage itself.

 

If a donor believes that a charity spends too much on overheads, it can withhold donations just like a shareholder can invest elsewhere – but restricting funding in this way is counter-productive.

 

In the UK, this is something for the charities Commission and government to act on.

 

Second, there has to be a stepping up on ability – which will lead to improved processes and systems (although improvements in each need money as well and the proposal above is one way of directing more into this area).

 

This stepping up of ability should be driven by government who should require firms of accountants to do what the legal profession does – provide at least 2% pro-bono capability into non-profits. I have been highly impressed by law firms’ ability to do excellent pro-bono – less so by the finance industry.

 

CSR divisions of companies should also be driving their best finance people into non-profits – in a meaningful way to address the social imbalance.

 

Governments should look to reward those who go from the private sector into the public or third sector (even for a time) with tax incentives (much like students having to repay their student loans). It is not a great time to do this, but it would indicate a lot.

 

Third, the big accounting organisations should ensure that they focus more attention on public sector and third sector – understanding the problems and devising exams and maybe alternative paths to accreditation rather than the one-size-fits-all approach. Certainly, the CIPFA and IPSASB provide the basics for the public sector but the incentivisation for the best to go into that sector let alone education or charities / NGO’s is far less and the number of accountants that enter the charity sector (for example) with the same skill levels and drive as those in the private sector is small.

 

Fourth, trustees from private sector organisations have to become involved – not just from a governance standpoint but setting examples and putting the bar as high as it needs to go to make the enablers work. This is hands-on stuff not just remote governance.

 

Separate sectors, common interests

 

Except in a society where the three sectors don’t exist (e.g. communist states), the challenge is greatest at the intersections of society – where the sectors clash. Yet, as in the example of automobiles above (or any other transportation systems), different sectors live off each other – and the charity sector fills many of the gaps that society does not see fit to fill in private or public sectors.

 

The sectors need to be different, of course, but there does need to be a far better understanding of the problems that our economic structures throw up and how to deal with them or fleecing of our schools will recur but be seen to be a mere tip of the social iceberg.

 

 

 

 

The Financialist-Political Complex

The Military-Industrial Complex is now old news

 

Investment banks ran amok and created financial disaster; Governments bought up the debt and have created sovereign debt bubbles and a crisis in the Eurozone; banks are now found to be rigging LIBOR and potentially costing savers and borrowers billions of dollars; banks are accused of rigging software that would have told regulators they were channeling drug money and terrorist finances through the banking system; small fines are levied which provides a huge rate of return on those “misdemeanors”.

So it goes on and on from when “the tide went out” in 2007 and we have forgotten the ever-depressing news from just a few years ago. Back in 2009, Lloyds TSB (now 43% owned by the British Government) was fined $350m for similar offences to those HSBC are alleged to have committed.

The US Department of Justice alleged that dating back to 1995, Lloyds falsified wire transfers involving countries or individuals on the US sanctions list.

In effect, the bank removed customer information so that transfers would pass undetected through sanction-focused filters at US banks, violating US federal law aimed at starving terrorists of money in certain countries.

Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau said: “The Iranian banks have money on deposit in London with Lloyds. They were having Lloyds send the money to the US and beyond and stripping the identification.”

In a statement, Lloyds TSB noted that it set aside £180m last year pending the settlement, and said that it “does not anticipate any further enforcement actions.”

Now, HSBC have made a similar settlement and the regulators are lauded for their achievements three years after the almost-forgotten Lloyds TSB case.

Nepotism

Government, politics and financiers have run nations together for hundreds of years. It is unlikely to change anywhere or anytime soon. What properly functioning societies should be able to do is to work to prevent the worst wrongs being committed. We clearly have not managed that in the last five years and our counter-balancing systems are not in place.

Especially in the USA and UK (but the same is true elsewhere as well) Governments and politicians in most major parties have contrived to provide the finance industry with freedom and have reduced the risk of failure to almost zero. This is now a tired story, repeated many times. Yet, five years on from the initial discovery of sub-prime devastation in the USA, has anything changed? Do we even recognize the real problems?

The nepotism within the family of government and finance persists and becomes more insidious. Banks and the finance industry are by far the most favoured by politicians. Bankers and financiers understand what drives the business of politics as well as what drives the engine of business on which they depend. A core problem is the very understandable reluctance of politicians (and in most cases their lack of understanding) to do anything. Democracies have lost the grip over a key element of our societies – and there is little being done to remedy that problem.

The reasons are simple: one the one hand, banking provides the lubrication for economic growth and, during good times, huge tax revenues ; on the other, political parties are funded by those who have made and still make their money in banking and finance. This is especially true in the USA and UK – which are heavily tilted economically towards the finance industry, but it is also true in the EZ land wherever banking exists (internationally, nationally or regionally, politicians are usually in hock to the finance industry). The interlocking of politics and banking is extraordinarily tight – it has been for a long time. We should not be surprised that very little is being done now to change this. Governments bailed out the banks by taking on their debts and continue to supply massive liquidity to the banking system. The combination of economic growth, tax receipts and party donations is too big for them to ignore.

Post-2007

We say the word changed post 9/11, but what changed post-2007, after the banks were shown to have failed our economies. Sure, many people now vilify the banking community as they do wartime con men or spivs. We feel that the banks and the bankers (especially those in investment banking) have taken us all for a ride. This was a ride they could not lose. They made huge money for themselves as individuals on the upside and lost nothing on the downside. True, a few like Fred Goodwin and recently Bob Diamond have lost their jobs – but, they remain seriously wealthy, having never actually paid for mistakes in the way an entrepreneur would have. They haven’t lost their homes whereas many others have. The risk: reward ratio was and remains massively in favour of bankers and the banks. Nothing has changed.

Banks that are too big to fail are still in place and the Vickers Review in the UK envisages nothing more than Chinese walls between the casino elements and the more traditional forms. Chinese Walls in banks (!) – the same banks that have engaged in LIBOR fixing, in sub-prime marketing, in money laundering. The same banks that are deemed to have dubious ethics and poor control systems, where compliance officers resign because of the lousy job they do and are given as good a job elsewhere in the business (just like arms manufacturers did for their staff caught bribing in the 1980’s).

Banks have now taken on the mantle of the defense companies that were ridiculed in the 1970’s and later for corruption on a world-wide scale (and where corruption continues in many, but differing areas). From the introduction of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act – FCPA – in 1977 in the USA (which is now under sustained attack in the USA by Chambers of Commerce), it took over 30 years for the UK to pass the Bribery Act and it will take many more years to ensure proper implementation. It is a relentless task to keep corruption under control – society has, though, a way of dealing with it, an understanding of it and a willingness to keep at it.

The Military-Industrial complex remains in place but it is no longer the ogre it once was (in the West anyway – even if the corruption engaged in by China, Russia and other newer entrants is destabilizing that market and affecting the resolve). Now, a bigger threat is the Financialist-Political complex (see Forbes July 2012 – Beware the Financial-Political Complex ) that has forever been in place and is now assuredly seen as a major threat. The only benefit of the financial disasters of 2007 is that the Financialist-Political Complex is no longer under cover – it is now there for all to see just as the Military-Industrial Complex was “uncovered” by Eisenhower in the 1950’s. The big question for the rest of society is what to do about it.

Tom Armistead (http://seekingalpha.com/) described Financialism recently:

Financialism is an economic system where the primary activity consists of creating and manipulating financial instruments.  Financial instruments…are in their original form firmly linked to economic reality.  However, when financialism sets in, financial instruments become progressively further removed from their role in supporting commerce in the real world and develop a life of their own.
I would add that Financialism should also include the undue influence that banking and finance have on politics, politicians and governments.

An FCPA for the FPC  (Financialist-Political Complex)

The inherent corruption of the investment banking industry, its progressive drive towards Financialism and its close relationship with Government means that it will take enormous sense of purpose and quite some time to make a change.

What the world needs is an FCPA not just for Financialism but for the Financialist-Political Complex – the FPC – where the world of banking and crazed financial instruments has bank-rolled governments and carries governments and politicians by its supposed economic force.

An FCPA for the FPC would mean that we first have to recognize the problem. It is not just a problem of the banking industry but a recognition that financialism and government are too intertwined and need to be separated – especially in the USA and UK, but, because the world is a global market, world-wide in a way that the OECD convention bribery made the FCPA a world-wide requirement.

  • We need to ensure that tax havens (the spiritual and economic home of financialists) are deprived of their tax haven status.
  • We need to ensure that taxes are paid where profits are made and that the virtual reality world of financialism is not allowed to exploit loopholes in tax regimes.
  • We need to ensure that political parties are not beholden on financialism so that funding for political parties is through contributions limited in size to, say, £10,000 or $15,000 or €11,500 or similar per person or company or association or union.
  • We need to ensure that that the financial instruments of the financialist industry are separated from the rest of the banking industry – not just by Chinese walls but by legal separation into separate entities.
  • We need to ensure that compliance regulation is strong in all countries allowed to carry out international banking and that compliance officers and managers are independently regulated and independent from those who sell financialist products. FATF needs to be given real powers but the OECD and other multi-national organisations should seek to ensure that banking and politics are kept apart and that influences are controlled. This will not inhibit growth – the disasters of the last 5 years have shown the impact of poor banking – its cost is in trillions of dollars.
  • We need to ensure that risk:reward ratios are proper and commensurate with those faced by entrepreneurs – who risk their homes and all their wealth. Managers should not see upward only rewards at the expense of shareholders and society.

The FCPA that led to the OECD anti-bribery convention and later to the Bribery Act in the UK was a forerunner that helped to shape the course  that the western world took in terms of governance and anti-bribery. Its impact, itself, is in danger of being blown off course by the economic problems caused by the financial collapse of 2007 as much as by the new players of China, India, Russia and Brazil. Nevertheless, it shaped a cultural direction that has endured and has done much to re-shape the military-industrial complex.

The financialist-political complex is where the military-industrial complex was before 1977. It needs a massive change in our culture and an understanding that it is not just focused on the banks but also the governments and politicians that depend on them so much that need changing.

Let me finish with another quote from Tom Armistead:

Banks need to be returned to their primary purpose, which is to serve the real economy, as financial intermediaries between those who work, save and invest, and those who need funds to create new means of production, or to buy a home, or a car. 

To go slightly further:

Banks and the whole finance industry need to to be separated from their nepotistic relationship with Governments and politicians so that their interdependence is no longer the massive risk that forces all of us to pay for it. We need an FCPA for the FPC – the financialist-political complex.

And Quiet Flows the Money (Apologies to Sholokhov and the Don)

We have recently heard how HSBC have been guilty of extraordinary money laundering that allowed the corrupt and the criminals to export “their” money around the world with impunity.

We are also told by the Tax Justice Network that tax havens contain over $21 trillion of funds – much of that the result of money laundering, all of it hidden from sight.

Money flows around the world in amounts that make ordinary people dizzy – yet, governments are scared to remedy the essential problem that the “hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil” banks and the laws that allow tax havens permit: at best, a gross distortion of the economic well-being of the vast majority (99.5% or more) of us that don’t work the system; at worst, a criminal shadow state that has the power to dictate our lives because of its financial muscle.

HSBC – dark deception

US Senator Carl Levin called HSBC misdeeds “stunningly unacceptable”. The broad acceptance that money can flow around the banking system no matter where it comes from and no matter where it is going strikes at the heart of a system mired in 19th Century but caught up in the plundering of the 21st.

Mexican drug cartels have (amongst many others) been able to syphon billions of dollars of their income (derived through murder and extortion and leading to the deaths of thousands, the misery of hundreds of thousands and the cost of those nations where demand for their drugs exist) as if they were the local car rental firm.

Regulators (see: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/finance/newsbysector/banksandfinance/9413299/HSBC-money-laundering-where-was-the-regulator.html) were inept at …regulating. The laws were broken time and time again and there is no question that HSBC’s guilt is equivalent to a conspiracy to flout the legal system.

As the Senate investigation found, between 2007 and 2008 there was around $7bn moved from Mexico into the US via HSBC. Mexican authorities pointed out to regulators and the bank that this was highly suspicious but no action was taken.

Above this, banks in Saudi Arabia and Bangladesh were provided with accounts despite their alleged terrorist connections.

This deception by the banks – where they know all the problems that being found out would cause – cannot be deemed to be a simple error of judgment. The dark deception practiced by HSBC goes to the very core of not just banking but the whole way nations work. HSBC has torn at the very heart of natural justice and ethics by thinking that the banking system is, somehow, not part of the world. The flow of money to them is something else – not the prime culprit and with no one hurt by their deceitful acts. They are, of course, completely wrong!

Banks’ dark deception is the same deception as any launderer of stolen goods. While we prosecute the small criminals, the huge criminal acts are allowed to escape. This costs us all. How?

Money flowing out of control

Without the ability to transfer their huge “wealth”, drug traffickers, corrupt politicians, the mafia and the rest would not be able to use that “wealth”. If an Angolan politician (and I use that country as an example advisedly) wants to gain any benefit from the oil wealth generated and passed into his or her bank account in Angola, the money has to be transferred to another country – somewhere that money can be invested or to buy goods (like mansions or yachts) that effectively launders that money. When Denis Christel Sassou-N’Guesso, the son of the President of the Congo, was shown by Global Witness in 2007 to have spent $35,000 on designer goods and other items (and went to court with them and lost), it may have seemed trivial – even to someone who earns much less than that a year from his “job” in his country. When he failed to pay his court costs, I had to pursue him into France (I was working with Global Witness at the time) and we found his expensive apartments in Paris and threatened him with bailiffs. He paid up!

But, how did he get his money out from a country where the vast majority is completely impoverished – under $2 a day income?

Through the banks, of course. Banks that are supposed to take account of PEP’s – politically exposed persons – and run checks on them to ensure that the money is obtained properly.

So, money flows without barriers around the world – banks appear oblivious to the terrors that their inactions cause.

Dark regulation – FATF

Of course, our guardians are supposed to be the regulators – people and systems entrusted by the “free world” to guard us against the corruption of the banking system.

Under the framework of the Financial Action Task Force – FATF (see:  http://www.fatf-gafi.org/pages/aboutus/) we are supposed to be provided with safety.

FATF’s objectives are stated as:

The Financial Action Task Force (FATF) is an inter-governmental body established in 1989 by the Ministers of its Member jurisdictions.  The objectives of the FATF are to set standards and promote effective implementation of legal, regulatory and operational measures for combating money laundering, terrorist financing and other related threats to the integrity of the international financial system.  The FATF is therefore a “policy-making body” which works to generate the necessary political will to bring about national legislative and regulatory reforms in these areas.

It is up to each country to develop its own safeguards and laws, but the system is failing. FATF make recommendations and while they have in recent years opened themselves up to more scrutiny and NGO participation, they are slow to act as any centralized, world organization can be.

If FATF was working, then the HSBC’s “stunningly unacceptable” inactions would not have occurred.

In each country, the laws and practices are separately developed. The US regulation of HSBC has been found to be appalling.  The Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC) had 50 investigations into HSBC between 2005 and 2010 in areas of anti-money laundering and found 80 problem areas. However, in not one of those cases did it require any major changes to take place. This laissez-faire attitude to such a serious problem again strikes at the heart of governance – banking and nation.

This then means that the Compliance management system within the bank was flawed and unable to resist the calls to make money. Compliance officers are weak and under pressure from the moneymaking machine that is the bank. The fact that David Bagley (HSBC’s Head of Compliance) resigned from his role is no surprise – who knows that he will remain in HSBC in a different role????

So, failure at international level (FATF); failure at national level (OCC); failure at HSBC (Bagley) – the whole system is designed to fail and meets that objective.

Darker than dark – islands of tax heaven

If that was all, it would be bad enough, but it gets so much worse. The Tax Justice Network reports that $21 trillion is held in tax havens. Anyone who had read Nicholas Shaxson’s excellent book – Treasure Islands (http://www.amazon.co.uk/Treasure-Islands-Havens-Stole-World/dp/0099541726/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1342962917&sr=8-2) will be familiar with how dark and dangerous the world’s elicit affair with tax havens is. $21 trillion of unseen “wealth” is stored away from taxation and from sight.

The USA and UK are especially complicit in this as the UK has its own tax havens in London, Jersey, Guernsey and its protectorates in places like the Cayman Islands. Because it supposedly provides wealth to important people who influence our affairs, successive UK governments have been scared to interfere. Recently, as much to do with the involvement of the Liberal Democrats in government as anything, small steps have been started to end many tax avoidance schemes and the use of moral judgment has entered our language. This is causing such a fuss that the good citizens of Jersey are threatening to break off from the UK – horror of horrors. It is but a small start.

The USA is not exempt from blame as Shaxson shows so well. Delaware – the Blue Sky State – makes its money from tax evasion. Offices in Delaware are home to hundreds of companies located there for tax reasons.

This costs us (the 99.5% who don’t have the opportunity to avoid tax in this way) a fortune. We end up with higher VAT, higher social security, higher income tax, corporation tax, inheritance tax and other sales taxes as a result.

As reported in the Guardian yesterday concerning the $21 trillion

This gargantuan sum is difficult to comprehend, but it becomes more understandable at a parochial level. According to an earlier report by the PCS union, the Tax Justice Network and War on Want, the use of tax havens costs the UK taxpayer at least £16bn a year, double the annual budget of the Department for International Development.

The River of Hades around the world

The confluence of the HSBC horrors combined with the system of tax havens that operate is of a worldwide network of money flows that are outside the law and jurisdictions. While we berate the investment banks for their sub-prime disasters of 2007 and for Diamond’s culture problems at Barclays, the basic banking systems are at fault in a worse way.

For, it is basic banking on which we trust to get money from one account to another. Nat West’s recent debacle in the UK, when its IT systems went haywire, shows what can happen when the basic system goes wrong.

How much worse it is when the basic system of banking and our international management of that system and to where we allow money to flow is completely abhorrent – it is a very dirty hell-hole that allows bad money to flow wherever it wants and to wherever it wants. The international banks are not just bystanders in this – they are culpable and implicit in crime, in corruption and in impoverishing millions (and making all of us poorer).

Banks have had a very bad press but in the 21st Century as digital technology rules our lives, it is too easy for banks and their staff to evade controls.

What should be done?

FATF should have teeth and should be allowed to go beyond recommendation to sanctions.

National governments should ensure that their OCC equivalents are given the means (financially, technically and with highly skilled and well-paid management) to do the job.

Compliance Managers in banks should have complete independence from their senior management and be subject to independent audit (outside the main financial audit and by different audit firms). Independence means that they should report to compliance board which, in banks, should have independence from the main Board and include only non-execs.

Tax havens should be outlawed – tax should be payable where profits are made and any scheme set up to avoid tax should be illegal. We have made a very small start in the UK- but only a tiny one. The moral crusade which happens at a time of worldwide recession is the time to get this in motion so that money can no longer flow illicitly and quietly.

EZ money – you can Bank on it!

It is just like a circus act – spinning plates as the audience waits for one to fall. When one falls, the act is over and they all fall. The plates – the Eurozone and banks – are spinning still – just – but the spinner is tiring, there is less time to go and the plates are shaking wildly.

 

Both the European banking system and its impact on the Eurozone are in critical mode. The illnesses are not being treated – we are merely ameliorating the symptoms. The new package of measures announced on 29th June provide some breathing space but the banks are the same banks as they were before and the Eurozone has exactly the same problems as it did on the 28th June.

 

Twin Devils: EZ and Banking

 

Banking is a devilish concoction – see my earlier posting: https://jeffkaye.wordpress.com/2012/02/05/banks-and-time-travel/

which focuses on the Mephistophelean trade that banking makes with us – the bringing forward of tomorrow’s wealth into today (with our soul in return). No government since money was invented has properly understood banking or had the ability to control it and democracies are ill-suited to manage the banks, the bankers or their products (although that is not a case made for ending democracy!).

 

On the same day that the EZ nations announced their new answers to the EZ crisis, UK banks were being vilified for their LIBOR manipulations and for wrongly selling interest rate insurance to small businesses (many of which collapsed under the strain of the repayments when interest rates collapsed under the banking-induced downturn in 2008). It couldn’t be made up!

 

The EZ nations horse-trade over more loans to the banks which bypass the sovereign debt obligations of Italy and Spain, amongst others. Banks will get loans directly from the ECB (for example) – which means that Germany will guarantee 50% of the loans, but France, Italy and Spain will also carry a burden.

 

The twin devils are fighting for their existence and the markets applaud every move – but, the problems persist.

 

Twin headache

 

Banks have existed far longer than the EZ and will outlive it. The likelihood is that the EZ nations, fighting for the survival of the Euro, will continue to miss the point. Banks are not, in the main, national entities, they form part of a world-wide consortium. Banks are a supra-economy and their product – money – can be created easily and changes time – lending and borrowing transform today’s problems into tomorrow’s – in a way that nothing else in economics can do.

 

Banks’ ability to transform time (the magical transformation that lending and, to some extent, insurance provides) is exactly what has provided the EZ with its problems – and the issue that wrecked Lehmans and nearly wrecked the US banking system. The banks’ inability to control themselves within reasonable and rational limits of lending has now been transferred to the countries where they are based. Sovereign debt has been amassed to cover the time travelling antics of the banks. Twin problems.

 

Paying it Back

 

Most economists are unclear about the problems that banks provide when unregulated on a macro-economic scale – all governments suffer the same lack of understanding, Money is not just easily created and employed, it effects transfers between time that equilibrium-based traditional economics does not understand. A loan provided to a company at an interest rate with payments spread over many years represents the ability of that company to achieve something now rather than later. The debt is paid off through interest (the economist’s price of money) and over time. Discounted cash flow techniques (based on interest rates) debase the future – eventually, it completely discounts it as though it was worthless.

 

But, the price of money is not just the interest rate. Price is repaid from tomorrow’s debt mountain when the debts pile up beyond the ability of payers to pay. The devastation of the Greek economy and young people’s work prospects in Spain testify ingloriously to this. The price is a heavy burden when the macro-economic effects of out of control banks are misunderstood. Supply and demand curves for money are meaningless when money is more or less free and money becomes free very often in society – which assumes a zero risk. It happened in the 1990’s and it happened just prior to 2007/8 – money was free because it was being created from nothing – by new forms of leveraging in secondary and tertiary markets that no-one understood. Interest rates were of no use as bankers and financiers scoured the market for easy bets (for that is what they were).

 

Now, we face many years of deleveraging – where yesterday’s over-leveraging is paid back – where time travel gets reversed. It must be that the discounted cash flow calculations were wrong – the assumptions were riddled with errors.

 

3D Chess played with blindfolds in different time zones

 

Economic management of banks and of sovereign debt makes assumptions based on projections that are misunderstood. Fund flows and interest rates that are meant to cover the supply and demand parameters miss the critical build-up of debts at a national level and at an international level. It is the mass of debt and the difficulty of managing that debt pile against a continuously changing assembly of poorer and poorer borrowers that constantly defeats bank management. The constant desire to bring forward projects from tomorrow into today – whether by an individual or a company or a government – feeds that process. It is the drive to consume now, the size, complexity and continuous shifts that make the problem so much greater than it was in the 19th Century.

 

3D Chess played with blindfolds and over different time zones looks easy in comparison and the answers are not easy to come by. The answers being implemented are micro-economic in the way that individual banks are required to increase capital ratios, for example.

 

The complexity in a period of deleveraging allied to a need for growth is enormous. Governments cannot (over time) have it both ways. Most developed nations are over-leveraged having borrowed far too much out of tomorrow’s wealth. At the same time, we are being told that we need more growth to help repay the debts. There is a limited intelligence involved here – or just maybe that the limited intelligence of politics is competing with economic reality. We should all be aware that for those countries in a downward spiral there are but three ways out of this: to deleverage (i.e. pay back debts); to reflate and debase a currency; to default – or a mix of the three. In the US and UK, reflation and currency debasement has been attempted; in Greece, there has been a default; elsewhere in Europe, the can keeps getting kicked but it looks more and more likely that German taxpayers will pay out for Italian and Spanish profligacy without the huge institutional and cultural changes that would make the investment worthwhile.

 

What’s the answer?

 

Governments have been trying to control banks for hundreds of years and failed. In the 21st Century, complexity has risen as has the ability of major banks and their staff to manipulate markets and manipulate customers.

 

This is not just a banking or EZ crisis – we have now to question our economic judgement and whether capitalism as we have practiced it for the last fifty years works. Just like corruption, banks and bankers will swarm into any gap that the market allows. It is not much use to anyone to swing the pendulum back and forth on regulation as economies grow or splutter.

 

After all, the problems in banking and in the EZ are problems of economies and problems that are due to a laissez faire relationship with growth as measured by….money (GDP). The only targets that we (not just the UK but world-wide) measure our success in is in money. The only targets are GDP targets – growth targets are GDP.

 

What is the answer? The answer lies in our ability to bring quality (and ethics) into our economic affairs.

 

Quality vs Quantity

 

As the Chinese and other developing nations rise up the GDP scale and as the world continues to use up its natural resources, we have not assessed why we continue to follow 19th Century economic principles that propose that we spend our way to happiness. GDP growth is important as societies develop – as hunger is eradicated, shelter is found, clothing is ensured and jobs provided. How important it is when we are “grown” is the debate that is now needed. Growth in what?

 

The rush for money (what seems to be the mainstay of society) is what has rushed the banks and EZ into the mire. We don’t understand the impact we are having on the next generation and beyond in terms of debts built-up and resources squandered.

 

We now have a quality vs quantity argument that underlies all the short-term “solutions” that we read about. The right answers require the right questions and the right questions may include something like: “do we need to use up tomorrow?” – that is what banking is, a discounted cash flow estimate of the future where everything is translated into numbers and where quality is completely overcome by the quantitative.

 

Numbers are in charge – and therefore banks (based solely on numbers) are at the forefront of such an economy. EZ crises are based on money and the addiction to numbers – GDP and growth. While this continues, so will our willingness to allow banks to seek out new methods of extracting tomorrow’s benefits to today.

 

To untangle societies from the rush for loans and products that banks supply (and EZ countries end up securing – and paying back through taxation) we should address the root cause – our predilection to the amassing of tomorrow’s money or its equivalent at the expense of tomorrow’s quality of life. Our kids and their kids deserve better – ask young Greeks or Spaniards.

 

 

From Euro Chaos to Chasm

As Greece Votes

I was on an ethics panel this week – organized by CGMA and Accounting Magazine. This has been arranged to discuss the outcome of CGMA’s recent survey “Managing Responsible Business” http://www.cgma.org/Resources/Reports/Pages/ManagingResponsibleBusiness.aspx

This survey explored the range of issues around business and doing things properly – ethically. It found that most businesses tried to, CEO’s were handing down responsibility for this to other staff, the ability to do so changed by country and there was real pressure not to in some countries.

With elections in Greece on Sunday and the Euro in everyone’s mind, the issue of business ethics seemed mighty small in comparison.

Ethics – moral rectitude, the rules of conduct – are not just about business. It is from society that ethics emerge and it is the destruction of the rules of good conduct that has tipped Europe and many other parts of the world into an economic, political and financial chasm. It is a chasm that threatens our way of life and, deep inside that chasm, there is not a lot of light.

The Chasm is not just a Banking one

 

We are continuously being told by our politicians that the current banking crisis can be resolved with large amounts of cash. The latest attempts are the £100bn on offer by the Bank of England of low rate loans to banks to regenerate lending in the UK and the €100bn on offer to Spain to prop up their banks.

In the chasm, sticking plasters don’t work.

Banking liquidity is not the problem anyway. The problem that banks have in Spain, for example, is solvency – their very being is at stake not their ability to lend in the short-term. They were over-stretched by awful decisions ten years ago to lend to get-rich-quick property schemes that were doomed and, when the tide went out, were shown to be naked. Borrowers across the western world were too highly geared – over-leveraged. While companies have managed to get their act together, individuals have not and while savings are higher, they are still, by normal standards, far too over-leveraged – which is still leading to house price reductions everywhere but London (where funds are rushing in from all corners of worse of countries).

But, the banks are hiding behind the problem in front of them – national insolvency. The transfer from nations (i.e. taxpayers) to banks has been enormous and continues. Well over a trillion dollars was poured into the US banking system and the same in Europe. The estimate is that this needs at least to be doubled. National solvency is at stake throughout Europe (west, south and east especially) and the austerity programmes now in place are a testimony to them.

Like the 1930’s, this is leading to massive unemployment and a risk that the chasm into which nation by nation is being thrown will swallow them whole. In Europe, the answer, we are told lies with Germany – they should assume the debts of all the others with Eurobonds – a financial answer to a financial problem.

But, the chasm is bigger than this.

The Chasm is engulfing Politics, Economics and Finance

Behind the financing of banks and the insolvency of nations lie the root causes. These are the disenfranchisement of the mass of people in most nations – disenfranchised not by their inability to vote every few years but by the paucity of choices on offer.

Greece offers a great example of a nation in economic chaos but the causes and the choices open to the people there are not often recorded.

Whoever read Michael Lewis’s “Boomerang” will understand some of the corruption that underpins the chaos. It is endemic and led by a political elite that have rampaged through the economy and gouged out any life from it. At the same time as The President of Equatorial Guinea is about to meet with four NGO’s (including my former employer, Global Witness) to discuss the rampant corruption inside his country, who is meeting with who to ensure that Greece can emerge with some dignity from its corruption?

Who can blame voters for, at last, running away from Pasok and into the arms of Syriza – the main concern is not the Euro, it is the corruption of the political elite and complete lack of trust in any politicians. The whole political class is tainted.

Outside Greece, the same is true to some extent in Spain and in Italy, where technocrats (unelected) now rule. The paucity of choice for voters – why vote for politicians when they are all the same and as corrupting and corruptible as each other?

The euro problem is much deeper. It is not just about emulating hard-working Germans, it is about serious change needed throughout Europe where leadership is absent or tainted by nations that are corrupt, unable to raise taxation, where the cash culture is rampant. This is true in Greece, Spain, certainly southern Italy and elsewhere. Why would Germany want to pick up the tab for this when the problem is chasm deep – not the surface banking or financial issue that has been painted?

The Ruling Class

In democracies, we are supposed to be able to vote out political parties that do a bad job. What happens when the whole political class is damned? The whole electorate is disenfranchised as a result.

This is true throughout the Eurozone – political parties have joined forces with other powerful elites to seemingly run countries – now, it is clear they have run them into the ground or, worse, into the chasm where conventional politics, economics and finance are drowning.

The ruling classes – politicians of all political persuasion, big business, the public sector – decided to run off with the benefits and have left the rest behind. Somewhere those funds reside in tax havens, well away from the hands of civil society. If it was all about harder effort, there could be some light ahead, but the problem is so deep that it will take years of real change and real hurt to recover to anywhere near where countries thought they were until recently.

From Chasm to ……what?

The European dream of one country living under one flag, which to many is a nightmare, is not a new one as the wars of the twentieth century showed. Now, a war just as savage is being fought – but a war where the fighting is hidden and where the soldiers don’t even realize they are in the trenches. Greek citizens and the young in Spain (where 50% are out of work) probably realize the consequences of the post-war European experiment. Many others don’t yet, but soon will.

Papering over a crack or two is relatively easy. Papering over a chasm is impossible,

The core problems of societies need to be resolved – corruption has to be ended, taxation has to be collected, public servants have to serve the public, politicians have to be credible and respected and people have to believe that if they work hard they stand a chance of being successful. For banks to function, they need finance; for businesses to succeed, they need markets and finance; for an economy to succeed, it needs good business but also a society that works – and that is not riven with insidious corruption of people and dignity.

Many African states (with massive natural resources) are corrupt and wealth is held by small elites. We did not believe that the corruption in Europe was on the same scale and, indeed, it is not the same – but the scale may be greater and just as endemic.

Solutions will not be found purely through the injection of more money into a chasm – the chasm has to be filled first or cleansed at least. Liberal democracy was supposed to be the best solution (the best worst solution). The 21st Century struggle may not be against the same totalitarians as in the last century (fascists and communists) and, hopefully, it may not be sullied by war and death, but, metaphorically, it will be just as bloody and won’t be complete until political elites are brought down to earth and civil society gets inside the tent.