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.

Active Re-branding or leave it to do-gooders?

Are we too complacent?

Henry Porter, writing in The Observer on 8th September about the Snowden affair, calls the British people “complacent” in its attitude to secrecy. He is concerned that the BBC’s Today programme on the previous day did not cover the subject recently when he believed it should have been a leading item.

In the UK, as we hopefully begin the escape from one of the worst recessions in history and where wages are, Iike in the US, still falling behind prices despite renewed growth in the economy, there is a mistiness amongst the population that is likened to Huxley’s Brave New World – where many of us appear to be high (or low) on Soma.

The Soma of the 21st Century is, maybe understandably, related to wealth– the money we earn that gets us through life. It pays our bills, buys our food and clothing and shelter, pays our tax and is almost everything most people think of as their main route to wellbeing. For almost all, money seems to form the basis of our lives and engulfs our thinking.

For money appears to be at the heart of everything the 21st human believes in – lack of money effectively disenfranchises us from most of life’s gains. Lack of money dis-enables. Maslow got it right to a point. We are all focused on the lower levels of his hierarchy. The trouble is how enough of us penetrate the upper layers.

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs

We seem to get the shelter and food parts, even the desire to belong and group ethics; but, once we get to esteem we believe that this relates to work and jobs and self-actualisation is well beyond almost anyone anyway. Working to the common good, for example, is maybe a stretch too far.

A recent survey shows that “only” 9% of us actively participate in civil society – working for civic pride – maybe being self-actualisers. The Charity Aid Foundation (CAF) found that just 9% of people give 66% of all the time and money to charities / not for profits in the UK. See report.

The “civic core”  – a concept first espoused by Mohan and Bulloch in 2012 – drives the charity sector. The “zero givers”, as the name suggests, relies on them to be the “do-gooders”.

 I am reminded of the days when Schools’ Boards of Governors were obliged to meet with parents annually. I cannot remember one occasion when, I as one of the governors, was confronted by an audience larger than the school governors present. For a school with over 1,000 sets of parents and guardians, possibly 10 people would turn up. No wonder this annual ritual no longer exists. Most people want to engage with themselves and their families and not with the wider community – let the civic core do it.

This reflection on society may seem overly harsh but does shine a light on Henry Porter’s concerns about society being “complacent”. Except in times of abject misery – like a time of war – most of society is not complacent but reliant. Reliant means that the vast majority of people looks to the civic core to run the core of society.

CAF senses that much of this is down to time-poverty – or lack of time to commit to other things. Is this really true? Are 91% of the population lacking time – or is this an excuse? Maybe there is no sense of the Big Society that David Cameron no longer mentions. Maybe we are individualists that rely on the rest of society where it counts – where priorities like secrecy issues are well down the list.

Re-branding society is a challenge – a call to inaction or action?

Of course, 9% of the adult population actually represents a lot of people – around 9% of 50 million – which is 4.5 million.

According to CAF, 4.5 million are actively involved – the civic core – who are not so time sensitive. A high proportion, though, are over-65’s and there are many more women than men, less full-time employed, less young people.

The challenge to which Henry Porter alludes is how to galvanise sufficient of civil society to make a difference – in an age where not enough of us commit to anything other than ourselves or to our close kin and friends – or, maybe to the ultra-loose contacts on Facebook or Twitter, where a retweet has somehow become our idea of “campaigning” and close friends are indicated by the number following you on LinkedIn or Facebook.

An indication of this is an excellent article by none other than comedian Russell Brand writing in the Guardian – 13th September.

This article followed his “joke” at clothing firm Hugo Boss’s expense at the recent GQ Awards. Brand’s article is very well written but it is not the explanation for his comments that struck me, but that such an articulate and obviously concerned individual as Brand could say the following (and I quote at some length):

” …For example, if you can’t criticise Hugo Boss at the GQ awards because they own the event, do you think it is significant that energy companies donate to the Tory party? Will that affect government policy? Will the relationships that “politician of the year” Boris Johnson has with City bankers – he took many more meetings with them than public servants in his first term as mayor – influence the way he runs our capital?

Is it any wonder that Amazon, Vodafone and Starbucks avoid paying tax when they enjoy such cosy relationships with members of our government?

Ought we be concerned that our rights to protest are being continually eroded under the guise of enhancing our safety? Is there a relationship between proposed fracking in the UK, new laws that prohibit protest and the relationships between energy companies and our government?

I don’t know. I do have some good principles picked up that night that are generally applicable: the glamour and the glitz isn’t real, the party isn’t real, you have a much better time mucking around trying to make your mates laugh. I suppose that’s obvious. We all know it, we already know all the important stuff, like: don’t trust politicians, don’t trust big business and don’t trust the media. Trust your own heart and each another. When you take a breath and look away from the spectacle it’s amazing how absurd it seems when you look back.”

This may well be heartfelt but the essence of Brand’s words seem to me to be passive – a plea not to trust politicians, big companies and the media: heartfelt but inactive; a plea to do nothing – to be mournful, sad about the exploits of others but certainly no call to action. It is a call to inaction.

Maybe he is too busy to use his fame for good causes; maybe Russell Brand is more interested in having a few laughs with his mates. But, if someone as intelligent and thoughtful as Brand can’t rouse himself to do anything, to get involved somehow, what do we expect from the rest of the 91% (or even most of the 9% who, while involved, are certainly not out there campaigning or even showing annoyance or being pro-active)?

Finding the Catalyst for Action

When many don’t even vote or even consider it necessary, we know that democracy is not in a good state. But, voting is a passive demonstration even if critical to a democracy.

Most do not enter into a debate on issues outside their very close domain – sport and the weather seem the height of discussion in this country. Or, many get high on celebrity – X Factor or Big Brother. Former News of the World readers now tweet obscenities or attack feminists. So, issues like secrecy or tax havens (important to some) somehow seem trivial when prices are rising above the rate of wages and when good, full-time jobs are hard to obtain, when the trivial becomes all-important.

Maybe there is a catalyst out there that will encourage more to raise the temperature of debate and even to join in an active capacity. I have seen it at work. Organisations like Global Witness (where I was fortunate enough to work for close on five years) are full of young, impassioned, intelligent people who work hard to make real change happen. Whenever a job vacancy was advertised, there were often hundreds of applicants – from top quality people itching to get involved. There is a strong undercurrent of capability in the UK (and elsewhere) of well-educated, strong-willed people that want to pro-actively work for a better future, who are not complacent and not reliant on others.

Maybe we need to get them to talk more about what they do – not just to governments and politicians (who, in the short-term, are the change agents) but to young people in schools and universities – who are so focused on jobs and wealth (which is fine) but who may also want to ensure that society is properly balanced. This balance is not away from wealth creation (which will remain a fundamental underpinning of our society) but towards wealth creation that we all feel good about and where we do understand that money is not the only thing: wealth being quality not just quantity.

Maybe Russell Brand could get involved in this way – using his enormous power of communication to pro-actively make people want to get involved. From an inactive mournfulness to pro-active catalyst – a re-branding that makes sense.

Waking from our tax stupor

Sleeping with Royalties

So Amazon, Starbucks and Google avoid tax and British politicians are surprised! So the big accounting firms (KPMG, Ernst and Young, Pricewaterhouse Coopers and Deloittes) follow the banks in Margaret Hodge’s and her committee’s sights.

It is pretty incredible that in 2012, after hundreds of years of banking and secrecy in financial dealings that politicians seem to suddenly wake up to the fact that multinational companies move money around the world to save on tax and that wealthy individuals do the same.

Have the sleeping pills run out? Is the dreamlike state that they were in for so long worn off like a modern-day Rip van Winkle?

All this time, companies have paid large royalties to themselves in low tax jurisdictions, changed prices to do the same, set up secret companies in secrecy-oriented tax havens alongside wealthy individuals and others from the criminal and terrorist fraternity who make the tax havens their home.

As wealthy nations like the UK have slept while such as royalties escape our shores (and our tax revenues with them) to the tax havens, we have allowed even more serious crimes to take place – the looting of the developing world of their natural resources through the illegal and morally repugnant ocean of money that gets sent to such secret jurisdictions. Far more money is transferred out of the third world into such jurisdictions annually than we in the so-called developed world push back in through aid programmes: all because we allow the secrecy to continue while we sleep.

Tax evasion / avoidance and secrecy – lifelong bedfellows

The talk is about how we extract more tax from corporations and the focus has been on HMRC to review the levels of royalties it allows companies like Starbucks to pay to what appear to be false set-ups in countries like Luxemburg. Starbucks solution is to keep on doing this but to pay HMRC £10m for a couple of years as a gift.

Tax avoidance on the scale that we are seeing – tens of billions a year according to experts like Richard Murphy. He shows how little companies are paying (compared to some like Costa Coffee who appear to be paying amounts that equate to their sales and real profits). The problem is that corporation tax is based on profits and, as any good accountant knows, profits are an art form not a science. If there were no secret jurisdictions, then companies would show their total sales and profits (as shifting money inside a company cannot lose it overall – so overall profits stay the same over time) and it would be possible to tax profits based on where the sales were made. Agreements could be made between the nations in which such sales were made on a national scale and by company. So, if Google makes $1bn in profits and 10% of its worldwide sales were in the UK, then it could be taxed on $100m of its profits in the UK at UK rates unless there were good reasons not to – e.g. evidence of excess investments. Of course, the simplest method would be to completely ban royalty payments within a company or connected companies. This would ensure (at least improve the chance that) that real activity and profitability were taxed where they should be. Royalties charged outside the company to another one would continue.

Before such a solution takes hold (or something similar – making real change to dual-tax treaties), the tax authorities have to struggle with long-term negotiation with companies on esoteric and mind-numbing issues and governments have to work to destroy tax havens and secret jurisdictions. HMRC are involved in the first but the progress on the second seems to take place on a geological timescale.

Secrecy is the friend of tax evaders and avoiders. Being able to hide the actual transactions that take place is often the cornerstone of tax minimization. This is why it is so important that the current discussions between the Isle of Man and the British government on opening up all the former’s bank account to UK investigation is so significant – even if just a start. Richard Murphy estimates that this will open up 99% of such accounts.

Good start but hardly the whole picture. As Nicholas Shaxson has written in his book Treasure Islands there are many tax havens in the world from the Channel Islands to Delaware  and from Cyprus to the Virgin Islands. Each one enables secrecy of accounts and company ownership that does not just delay the ability of tax authorities to open up the information but stymies it completely in many cases.

Transparency – letting the light in

Earlier this year, Global Witness issued a report – Grave Secrecy that highlighted the following:

Global Witness believes a further dramatic change  is required: the identities of the real, ‘beneficial’ owners of all companies should be publicly available in the country they are incorporated, and nominee directors and shareholders should be held liable for their clients’ actions. The EU has the opportunity to take the lead on this over the next 18 months as it updates its anti-money laundering laws.

This matters because ‘shell’ companies – entities that are little more than just a name on a piece of paper – are key to the outflow of corrupt money that keeps poor countries poor. Those who loot state funds through corruption or deprive their state of revenues through tax evasion need more than a bank: they need to hide their identity behind a corporate front. Countries such as the UK might have a company registry and consider themselves ‘onshore’, but as long as they only collect shareholder information, they are effectively permitting hidden company ownership – which means they are as offshore as any palm-fringed island and will continue to facilitate corruption, tax evasion and other crimes. This needs to change.

Their investigations showed how easy is was to set up false companies (in one case with a director who was no longer alive) which would often not operate but to which financial transactions would be placed – disguising the remittance of funds from one jurisdiction to another. Money laundering of this type is thus rampant internationally.

This is not much different from the tax avoidance of legitimate companies who, arm in arm with politicians and tax authorities, have been sleep walking to the current position. Now, with so many countries deep in recession and with Governments indebted and working hard to stay financially afloat, the general public is angered at what seems to be the slanting of tax benefits away from those who are working hardest to those who manage money and financial flows.

Robert Peston (BBC financial commentator) writes today (December 8th):

“Companies perceived by people, politicians and media as, in some sense, not making a proper contribution to the societies from which they extract their revenues and profits, will over time become marginalized within those societies”

Secrecy has bred tax opportunism and money laundering and it is right to conjoin those terms even if in law they differ. While the recession keeps its grip on the western world, there will be no let up on the public’s desire for some better form of equality whether against the wealthiest 1% or the top companies who control most of society. This equality of outcome – paying the right tax for the benefits that accrue from the nation that houses that company (such as roads, police, defence forces, education and the like) – is a central theme for this recession.

To become transparent is the requirement for the 21st Century and especially during the economic downturn. The internet has given us all the ability to learn what is happening within seconds and to act on it. So, Starbucks is today hit by demonstrations despite its ploy of giving a charitable donation to HMRC.

However, real transparency will require the ending of tax havens, the ending of impunity for those who are guilty of money laundering and for those who enable it (whether lawyers, firms of accountants or banks – many of whom are now facing corporate fines but few individuals are facing prison).

We should have a transparency law operating in all jurisdictions (similar to the country-by-country reporting) which would require multi-nationals to declare their sales in every country in which they do business, an end to tax havens and secrecy, real Directors allowed to operate companies, an end to the transfer of funds of PEP’s (politically exposed persons who operate with impunity and take billions out of countries desperate for the money they transfer into their own accounts) and a general set of legal requirements which ban artificial tax avoidance schemes.

The Second Great Wall of China

Reading Martin Jacques’ “When China Rules the World” during a week when the New York Times’ website was taken offline in China after it published claims about the wealth of Wen Jiabao. News about Mr. Wen’s alleged fortune of £1.7bn was characterized by the Chinese as a “smear” and resulted in news blackout on the subject. The BBC was similarly off air for months after its detailing of the Bo Xilai case.

 

Jacques’ well-documented book shows China as a “civilization state” that the West will not be able to challenge in its essential ideals based on 2,000 years of civilization and then Confucianism. The desire of its people – massed in a vast area with one-third of the world’s population – for solid government and their Confucian appetite for family connections leads many to believe that their form of government and control is the only way for China and that the rest of the world will not be able to change it.

 

The Wall of Legalism

 

Francis Fukuyama in his excellent book “The Origins of Political Order” http://www.amazon.co.uk/The-Origins-Political-Order-Revolution/dp/1846682576/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1351345981&sr=8-1on focused how the origins of the rule of law was central to the proper governing of a state. Success, where no government or leader was above the law, is contrasted with such states as China, where, except for brief period, the ruling elite has been above the law.

 

Many believe that a state with Confucianism on the outside and Legalism on the inside is how China is governed today. Legalism, a creed formulated and emerging properly in the Warring States Period up to 221bc, seeks to ensure that strict laws keep dissent down and people equal. The Emperor was in place because of the law and was above it – but had to be flexible in intent to ensure that the leading cliques were satisfied.

 

Coming forward 200 years and the so-called Communist Party has assumed the role of Emperor. A Communist Party that that no longer believes in Communism but in power from the centre; that not just tolerates corruption but uses it throughout China to keep its leading cliques in check; that exports corruption to its supply-chain (its raw materials suppliers) throughout the word in order to keep them sweet; that deals harshly with any dissent and criticism; that only reacts to the worst crimes and then only when it has to (such as with Bo Xilai – who became too much of a burden).

 

Legalism as a creed best describes the current Chinese government style – no longer driven by the equality of Communism – where a ruling elite has taken over the State and drives it according to their own requirements.

 

The post-World War II political and economic direction of the West has been democracy and capitalism. Human rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights http://www.un.org/en/documents/udhr/index.shtml has been a solid framework on which political thought has been based. The development of the European Union (notwithstanding economic upsets through the Euro) was based on this political fulcrum and a liberal economic system.

 

This post-war consensus in the West has also been the basis on which we have tried to hold the rest of the world to account – to develop democracy and capitalism on a worldwide basis.

 

No use for Wallpaper

 

Now, the western consensus is threatened by China. Having taken the economic principle of capitalism and thrown the centralized system of communism into the gutter, the Chinese are rapidly gaining economic muscle. This was not surprising once the shackles of the communist economic model was broken and Deng XiaoPing was able to redirect the Chinese to a better economic future.

 

This had already had enormous impact in China as wealth has increased and will continue to do so. But, a country with huge numbers of people but limited natural resources (apart from their own intelligence and rare earth minerals) has to then engage with the rest of the world in order to maintain that direction of travel.

 

This is now breaking down the political and governance consensus that the West has tried for the last sixty-seven years to impose. What does this mean? It means that the Chinese are overturning the route to democracy and democratic institutions. It means that elites in developing countries now have huge financial backing from the Chinese – through sales of raw materials to China and through the fact that they are witnessing another political model.

 

The West cannot wallpaper over the political cracks in the political wall. While capitalism is clearly now shown to be the best worst system of improving our material wealth, democracy is no longer the only political product on sale. After the bloody years of fighting against communism and fascism, which World War II was supposed to have won, the challenge is not so much religious fundamentalism (which we have been understandably so fearful of) but the enormous influence that China will have on a world where the most serious challenge to democracy is arising.

 

Taking a brick from the Wall

 

The battle for ideas is just starting. China needs a healthy west and a healthy India and Brazil and rest of Asia and it needs the raw materials from across the planet. Apart from the environmental catastrophes that are likely to be exacerbated by the drive for material growth (upon which the Chinese legalist approach relies in order to keep its people happy), the influence of Chinese political thought is likely to grow exponentially.

 

Recent riots in Ningbo –   http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-china-20109743 – against a chemical plant expansion and the Chinese authorities’ methods of dealing with it (which includes the hiding of road signs so that journalists won’t find their way to the riots!) are a simple sign that Tiananmen Square was by no means a low point.

 

As the world waits for the US Presidential election, a change of at least equal importance will be taking place in Beijing and no-one will know who has come out on top until the new politburo of the Chinese Communist Party is unveiled around 15 November.

 

Not that this will change anything. In the US, the economics will be substantially changed by the possible election of Romney and (Ayn Rand influenced) Paul Ryan. The political system will not change.

 

In China, nothing will change and the political, legalist system will continue internally and externally. This is a continuing challenge that is currently seen as economic but will eventually be seen as dramatically political and on a world scale. For Chinese economic growth will challenge the democratic ideals built up by the West and hard fought for by millions. It is now ranged against 2,000 years of Chinese centralism legalism.

 

How (or if) the West reacts to this will be a far bigger story than the economics – and arguments over tariffs and who owns Treasury bonds. We need to start taking the brick from the Wall before it is built around us.