So and so’s. How Some Banks Con

What does HSBC stand for? What do we do about it?

“so and so” – an undefined person considered beneath contempt

  • So, HSBC is shown by the BBC to have systematically organized illegal tax benefits for hundreds or thousands of its customers through its Swiss subsidiary. No surprise.
  • So, HMRC (the UK’s tax collection agency) has recovered only £135 million since that time in tax and penalties out of billions that are illegally saved each year. No surprise.
  • So, HMRC and this government agreed with the Swiss authorities (after the leaks about HSBC were found) not to prosecute except where the cases would be virtually guaranteed to succeed. No surprise.
  • So, the then Sir Stephen Green (now Baron Green), then HSBC’s CEO at the time is not talking and the Conservatives (via the chief Secretary to the Treasury – David Gauke) say that there is no evidence that he directly knew of what was going on. No surprise.
  • So, the Conservatives demand to know why Ed Balls, now Shadow Chancellor and then City (of London) Minister did nothing at the time. No surprise.
  • Anyone see the actions that the issues and finger-pointing provoke? Just politicians ranting at each other while the poor taxpayer – those “so and so’s” who have been squeezed mercilessly since the banking industry exploded in 2007/8 – is left with the bill – lower wages and austerity.

Meanwhile, the real “so and so’s” who should have been prosecuted and some doing time in prison are seen as outside the justice system – no longer within the law despite proof of a multi-billion pounds swindle on the UK.

So what?

Well, there has been extreme tax fraud – no-one denies it. Even HSBC accepts that they have had to make major changes in their banking practices – although, according to staff who have left HSBC this did not really make any progress until well into 2011.

Sir Stephen Green may well not have known the specifics. CEO’s of big banks (and most large organisations) are sheltered from the bad things going on but it is no defence to state that they did not know “specifically”. CEO’s are appointed as heads of such organisations and set the tone – the culture – of any organisation. As such, they are culpable for any major misdeeds that occur. In his excellent book on RBS, Shredded, Ian Fraser takes apart any claims that CEO’s can be said to have stood outside the fray. Maybe RBS was even worse than HSBC but senior management set the culture and reap the rewards of profits – Sir Stephen would have benefitted personally from the gains made through tax fraud in the Swiss subsidiary and, if he did not know what was happening (just as Henry II is alleged to have made the claims about Thomas Becket’s murder in 1170), then his lack of pro-activity in finding out would have been a joke. We don’t seem to have learned much in 845 years!

Anyway, if Sir Stephen Green knew nothing and is as innocent as a puppy, then how can Ed Balls (City Minister at the time) be accused of knowing everything by the people who then appointed Sir Stephen Green (now Baron Green of Hurstpierpoint) to Government in 2010?

Is there really a case against Ed Balls when the good Baron knew nothing, apparently? David Gauke sounded ridiculous on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme today because he was being so. Stupid political points were being made when the “so and so’s” who rule the world (the bankers) are freed from the rigours of the law (and any ethical codes) and continuously benefit.

Public Accounting for the “So ands so’s”

So, Margaret Hodge (the Chair of the British Parliament’s Public Accounts Committee – PAC) states that she will bring those responsible before her Committee. She states, quite properly, that the UK is not “aggressive enough” is tackling these issues. Even though the issues occurred during the previous Labour Government’s period in office, Mrs Hodge states very clearly that Stephen Green has a responsibility – he either “knew” of the tax dodges or was “asleep at the wheel” – quite right!

The PAC should now (seven years too late) point to what should be done: not just who is culpable but how the UK will recover the lost tax and how the UK will not stand for repeated situations. The USA fines banks billions of dollars. The UK (with the political establishment too much in hock to the banks and the civil servants and HMRC too timid and weak) does almost nothing but whimpers about no-one being responsible and it being too difficult to prove.

Which “so and so’s” are running the madhouse?

Isn’t it time that those who have suffered so much from the banks’ failures begin to see some recompense? This is not a desire for revenge but failures of this size have not led to a discernible change in this country’s culture or efforts to ensure such failures do not recur.

HSBC seems not to have been penalized for tax avoidance schemes and a culture that would not be tolerated even at Tesco. The UK has a need to change the way it deals with abhorrent schemes and aberrant behaviours. Politicians and those who work in the public sector need to feel the pressure that the public wants them to be under – pressure that needs to result in the defence of public needs. If it does not, then Syriza in Greece was an outcome of such lack of public interest and UKIP in the UK is another (although not quite the anti-aberrant banking behavior that is needed). If this Government does not ensure that the “so-and-so’s” aren’t allowed to run the country, then May’s general election in the UK will see an even more angry electorate ditching them.

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.