A People’s Charter for the Banks

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

The FCA – Financial Conduct Authority

 

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

 

The reduction of financial crime.

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

(a) by a regulated person, or

(b) in contravention of the general prohibition,

to be used for a purpose connected with financial crime.

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

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

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

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

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

(a) fraud or dishonesty;

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

(c) handling the proceeds of crime.

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Change the Financial Services and Markets Act 2000 to:

 

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

 

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

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

 

 

 

 

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.