Banging the Cultural Drum for Banks

 

Banging the Cultural Drum for Banks

Banging the Cultural Drum for Banks

Culture – the total of the inherited ideas, beliefs, values, and knowledge, which constitute the shared bases of social action (Collins English Dictionary) 

Ethics – the moral value of human conduct and of the rules and principles that ought to govern it |(Collins English dictionary)

“The epitome of the multifarious cultural and ethical failures at the bank include the fact its investment banking arm, now due to be largely shut down, was only able to thrive by cheating, and that the arm, now called Markets and Investment Banking (M&IB), continued to rig various benchmarks, swindling investors and counterparties, for years after the bailout.” Ian Fraser – describing one aspect of his book “Shredded: Inside RBS The Bank That Broke Britain”


 

Just last week, Cass Business School and New City Agenda issued: A Report on the Culture of British Retail Banking . It is a useful analysis of the banking failures but, for once, centred on culture at the banks. As such, it deserves attention.

In a previous note my focus was on how the banks had got themselves into a grand mess because they rushed into a culture that was short-term and focused more on individuals working for the banks than their customers.

The Cass / NCA report is a useful attempt to understand the cultural problems of the banks and what needs to be done to change those problems. It seems churlish of me to sound a note of concern with the analysis bearing in mind how much I have written on the need but, despite the work that has gone into the study, I do find some serious gaps in the assumptions, the recommendations and the risks.

 

  1. Society

 

One concern is that the study suggests banks (particularly the larger ones) are similar to any other large companies – like those in the oil sector (to which reference is made concerning culture change) – and should therefore be treated like those in other sectors. Unfortunately, banking is unlike any other sector.

 

  • No other sector creates money;
  • No other sector holds the rest of the economy to ransom through its systemic economic risk;
  • No other sector is so intertwined with economies and governments.

 

For these reasons, the thought that banks have to be allowed to take care of themselves (which is a crucial assumption of the report) contains dangers that the report does not examine. While banks are intimately involved with other organisations in both private and public sectors, the report does not seem to share a view that wider society has a stake in them. The fact that general taxpayers are paying off the burden of their recent misdeeds is a real and proper concern. It is not just “customers” (a key focus of the report) that feel the problem of poor investment in IT or bad service – it is also all those affected by huge government deficits and cut-backs that have been the result of the banking induced crisis. I don’t see this recognition.

 

What this means is that banks cannot just be left alone to reflect on their cultures. There does need to be a societal involvement in the cultural thinking that shows banks understand what they are there for – which is different to most industries. This culture is not just about being sustainable or not creating “externalities” (like oil companies should be focused on – e.g. pollution) but on the central role that banks play in society and the huge risks that they provide. This short note is not the place to examine the role that banks should perform (although I have touched on that before – https://jeffkaye.wordpress.com/2012/02/05/banks-and-time-travel/) but their national and economic roles and their inherent risks have to be important aspects of their culture.

 

  1. Ethics

 

The mention of ethics in the banking system is a touchy one. Ethical codes are often there to be abused (viz. FIFA) but the banks perform such a key role in society that they should not be allowed to differ in how they develop ethics codes and they should be regulated around ethical behavior.

 

The word “ethics” appears fleetingly in the Cass / New City Agenda report. Yet, it should be the basis upon which culture is developed. It is via an ethical approach to its customers and wider society that banks need to be based. The report focuses on how banking culture has been “Sales” led (even excessively so) but this would not have happened if banking culture and banking leaders had been ethical in their approach.

 

  1. Accountability

 

Again, the report states that the banks operated a “Sales Culture” – and was excessive in that direction. Of course, all businesses have to operate a sales culture to a degree or they go out of business. But, the extreme form of “sales culture” that operated was enabled by top management.

 

It can be stated reasonably that banks operated (and still operate) without a culture of accountability. Another crucial organisational mandate that appears to be missing from the analysis in the report is this one – individuals within the banks seemed to be accountable to themselves or to just small groups. The businesses did not seem to have areas of key accountability for such fundamental mistakes and still do not. Any successful business or organisational culture requires accountability – culture is driven from the top so that it must be clear that “the top” has to be clearly accountable for major deviations.

 

This accountability has to be within the Board, Board Committees, Regulators and Auditors. The culture has to be clear that accountability is embedded within it.

 

  1. Governance

 

This is linked to accountability, of course, but Governance has to include the oversight of business culture – which is itself wrapped within the overall purpose of the organization. Governance is, by law, the responsibility of the Board acting on behalf of shareholders. However, in the case of large banks – and this becomes a crucial requirement – societal governance should also be required. A bank’s board, when deemed to be large enough, should include Directors who are there to judge whether the bank is meeting its societal objectives – a privately owned, market-driven business but with key societal objectives. This is, therefore, linked to both accountability and societal inclusion. Having The Banking Standards Review Council under the auspices of Sir Richard Lambert is fine but this Council is likely to be dominated by the banks – indeed, Sir Richard is looking to the banks and building societies for members – a bit like the police governing the police. The BSRC (if it is to work at all) needs outside members who are not influenced overmuch by the banking fraternity.

 

  1. International Norms

 

Another problem for the banks (and the report) is that we now live in a global economy. As in the period leading up to the disasters of 2007/8, our banks did not act alone but were in a group of western banks throughout Europe and the USA that played the same game. Next time, the centre of the storm may be elsewhere.

 

This requires some real thought being given to how British banking will (if it adopts sustainable cultures) not be persuaded to ditch their ethics if others go haywire as in 2007/8. This requires international banking to be based on the same footing. It may require a set of ethical baselines such as the one that EITI (The Extractive Industry Transparency Initiative) has developed for that industry.

 

  1. Sustainability

 

Covering all of the above is the need to banks to be properly sustainable – and the report does focus on ridding the industry of its short-termism. However, this is, again, for both the industry and for society to develop a sustainable path – as banks are often too big to be left to themselves and have shown a distinct lack of ability to judge what will make them sustainable.

 

  1. Risk and pay

 

The final issue I believe has been de-focused is that bankers pay themselves when they do well and just lose bonuses when they don’t. Assuming they work within the law, why are bankers paid as entrepreneurs on the upside but as staff on the downside?

 

If pay is to be maintained on the upside, then so does the opposite apply. Entrepreneurs are risk animals that bet their own money to reap fortunes if they succeed. A major flaw in our economies is how the financial sector and managers within it (to a reduced extent the same in other sectors) have captured the winnings from those with “skin in the game” – which used to be the shareholders.

 

The latter suffer the risk of loss on the downside, bankers do not. This should be changed.

 

21st Century Banking Culture

 

Society, Ethics, Accountability and Governance appear to be the basis for any banking system in the global economy of the 21st Century. While the report is highly practical and research based, leaders within the UK (not just bankers) should be developing the strategies for the future based on a society that will perform and that we want to be part of.

 

Banking is too important to be left to just practical considerations. Real leadership is required and unless societal, ethical, accountability and governance concerns are fully embedded into banking culture, the same problems will arise time and again.

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The Ownership Disconnect – Managers, Shareholders, Risk and Markets

Or a case of: Absent owners,  managers that act as if they own and get paid as if they take all the risks

Since the banking crisis that became a sovereign debt crisis, the world has begun to focus on the huge salaries and bonuses that are paid to bankers and top business people. In the last week, Barclays Bank announced that over 400 of their staff earned over £1 million in the last financial year.

Whereas those who place their financial lives on the line by building their own businesses and then, if successful, reap the financial rewards – but, if not successful, may lose everything – remain in high esteem amongst most people, those that risk no financial penalties whatsoever (but take massive salaries) have slipped further and further down in the public’s esteem quotient.

Senior managers and directors of major companies (including banks) and sales staff that take home huge bonuses (especially in banking and finance) are no longer lauded for any value they bring amidst a view that their rewards are far too high bearing in mind the lack of risk that they have. This has resulted in the EU plans to limit the bonus payments to bankers – an extraordinary intervention in the marketplace.

Does the marketplace work?

Stock markets are deemed to be the best place to see demand and supply at work. There is more data collected on stock prices than anything else and it goes back hundreds of years. Constant pressure on transparency and liquidity means that markets like the US (DOW, S&P, Nasdaq) and the London Stock Exchange (and others of similar size and liquidity) ensure that supply and demand usually results in a price that means something.

While this has changed markedly with the intervention of computer-driven buying and selling as well as the fact that around 70% of stock is owned by institutions, nevertheless stock markets appear to be mainly market driven. That never means the price is “right” – markets provide a price on any day that may be driven by a myriad of reasons. However, the market price is the price and buyers and sellers are able to take legitimate decisions whether to buy or sell.

Secondary markets

The owners of stocks and shares have, in the vast majority of cases, bought those stocks and shares in a secondary market – long after the IPO. While the majority of today’s owners of Facebook may be IPO buyers, this is only because the company had its IPO just months ago. For the rest of the publicly traded corporate sector, buying shares has little to do with the company involved.

Ownership of a share means potential increase in capital value and dividends growth – and some ownership rights which are rarely used by the individual buyer (although Martin Sorrell is facing some pressure from recently voluble fund holders). Shareholders are primarily interested in the value of the stock – almost unrelated to the company.

Robert Beckman, a well-known business writer from the 1990’s, estimated that 70% of a share’s value related to the way the market was going, 20% related to the industry and only 10% related to the individual stock. If true, this means that ownership of shares in the quoted sector is almost unrelated to the individual stock and owner responsibilities are negligible and rarely used.

In addition, the development of the joint stock company limits the risk to just the loss of the investment and no more (unless buying stocks through leveraged schemes or option trading).

Ownership means almost nothing these days when that ownership is in a publicly traded company.

Staff acting as owners

Lack of ownership in publicly traded companies (the understandable move away from the 19th Century where owners were managers), means that senior managers now act as owners. While it is absolutely true that managers spend considerable time talking to representatives of shareholders (pension funds and similar) and to others who write on their stocks (such as journalists), this is to keep the price up in the market relative to other stocks in the secondary market. It is part of the process of market transparency. Today, that is the main connection between management and owners (at least in terms of the value placed on the stock).

The Board  (with non-execs here to represent the shareholders) carries out primarily a governance role and has, usually, a compensation committee. Their job is to see that senior staff are paid a salary commensurate with the market or whatever and to secure senior staff in their jobs. This crucial role has, of course, been shown to be spurious in recent years.

The banking crisis has shown that there is no such thing as market rates for top staff in major corporations. Has it been just a way of jockeying for position that seeks to provide pay at the highest levels possible? CEO’s claim that they need to be paid international salaries to stay in their UK jobs no matter how poorly their companies’ share price performs.

Recent comments from those involved in the industry show how few CEO’s move abroad or from abroad to the UK. This basic tenet is mistaken, let alone the requirement to pay huge commissions to banking staff when their risk – like those of CEO’s – is no more than to keep their basic pay (already substantial) or in the worst case lose their job. This is completely unlike the entrepreneur, who has both management and ownership, and the heaviest of financial risks – the potential to lose his / her financial assets as well as their job. Both get potentially great rewards, but their risks are completely different.

Market rates of pay are notoriously difficult to derive. Where there is a vast statistical database, then it is possible – although here the markets are driven in different directions by groups of people getting together in unions to drive up market rates (and other forms of benefits).

The shareholder / manager dilemma

 

This can be stated for modern corporate life (in publicly traded companies) as:

Owners that stand back too far leaving managers that act as if they own companies and get paid as if they take all the risks

The issue is important for many reasons. We now have huge and dominant multinational corporations. We have shareholders that seek high and constant returns but have no affinity to the companies they “own”. We have managers that are (too?) highly paid and have wrestled a much higher share of the companies’ income to themselves than ever could have been envisaged and (in the UK and the USA at least) with over-dominant banking and financial centres which have tended to suck the life out of the entrepreneurial sectors rather than giving it life.

Can Shareholder Activism be Re-ignited?

As the West sinks dismally into austerity and behind the newly developing economies of China and India, where corporate ownership is complicated by government (intervention or direct ownership), we need a rebalancing away not just from banking and finance to areas of real value creation. We also need incentives for owners to own and managers to understand and accept real risk before they can access the type of returns that real entrepreneurs can access.

This will (if it is possible) drive any massive returns to the holders of real risk – those who can lose everything or gain massively. This is not the lot of managers – whose risk profile is slanted to the positive and whose manipulative skills are far greater than the quasi-shareowners buying their ownership in secondary marketplace.

Entrepreneurship is at the heart of business and growth of any economy. But, it is stifled by the rise of the manager in publicly traded companies where that rise absorbs far too much of the value created.

Shareholders are slow to act as they are, in the main, too far from the action, unknowing or a manager themselves – as in pension funds.

Now, the UK coalition government will be giving shareholders the right in annual general meetings to reject senior Directors’ pay proposals. The EU is considering the same thing. So, the pendulum is swinging in the direction of shareholder activism after many years of drift and decay. On both sides of the Atlantic, it is necessary for shareholders – who actually, in law, own companies, to assert themselves in pay and other issues. Economies in the West are dividing between those who are in control of an unrealistic share of corporate income (and in 2011, FTSE Directors pay rose 49% while average pay in the UK rose just 2%) and others. The others are shareholders and other employees.

A true market can only operate where monopolies fear to exist. It is apparent that quoted company directors have been able to set their salaries within a close market situation. In a long recession that we have seen in the West since 2008, it would be remarkable for there not to be a kick-back against the ability of one sector of society to benefit so much. Asking for constraint is insufficient. Markets have to be enabled and the recent moves to encourage shareholders to be more active and to give some powers that actually work are in the right direction.

Now it is up to the shareholders (basically, the senior staff of fund-holders like pension funds) to bare their teeth – like they are doing at WPP – and show that just because they go to the same clubs and come from the same schools, shareholders can be properly represented and the market for top directors’ pay can be made efficient.

A Proposal or Three

With stocks bought in a secondary market where ultimate owners have little or no real understanding of the business or ownership responsibilities, it seems reasonable to require large owners of shares to take their responsibilities more seriously – how should secondary market shareholder activism become real? Some suggestions:

Proposal 1: all owners of more than 1% of shares of any traded company should be required to nominate a non-executive director or actively support the nomination of one proposed by another such organization.

Proposal 2: such organizations, who normally buy shares on behalf of others (pension funds, hedge funds or similar) should ask their own investors (mainly those who put their savings into those companies – not just their own shareholders) to vote on their proposals.

Proposal 3: all such organizations have to register as “major shareholders” when they accrue over 1% of stock in a company and the FSA / Stock Exchanges should monitor the job they individually do to actively monitor companies – in the same way that organizations monitor MP’s voting.

All the above relies on making this easy – e.g. online only voting within pension funds and similar (i.e. no computer access, no vote) but, in an age of digitization and where companies and owners are so disconnected, secondary markets need to become activated.