“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.