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.
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?
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.