Well done Team GB. You have not just chalked up wonderful results, but you have avoided tub-thumping triumphalism and shown the world that there is a facet of Great Britain that is most appealing: our ability to self-deprecate and laugh at ourselves. Would that we could say the same about some ‘gentlemen’ in finance.
As we all know, some disastrous things have been taking place there. It truly makes MPs grubbing around for small change in the expenses scandal look quite inconsequential. These guys can sink us all; they almost did, and might yet do so.
I believe the time has come for drastic action, starting with the criminalisation of excessive and irresponsible risk-taking. Had we done so at an earlier date, ‘Fred the Shred’, and others like him, would almost certainly have thought twice before doing what they did.
Nothing concentrates the mind like a good hanging – only, in this case, we’ll settle for a lengthy prison term. Yet for some reason the powers-that-be are strangely reluctant to come down on white collar crime in anything like the way they do on blue collar. Do I detect privilege looking after its own? Is there an ‘old boys’ network in operation? David Cameron says we should not encourage banker bashing. May it not be that what he is really saying is: “leave my friends alone”? The Americans are far more willing to send financial miscreants to prison than we are. Why is this?
The whole western world is suffering to an extraordinary extent because of the misdeeds of the financiers; likely to be protracted, and life destroying to many millions of people who have done nothing wrong, the Great Recession has already been dragging on for four years now and no end can be discerned. In truth, it is likely to get much worse. Not a pundit on the planet has a clue where it is all going and when it will end.
The people who have done this to us have not only got away with it scot-free, but seem unable to grasp the enormity of what they have done. Nothing better illustrates this than the continuance of the iniquitous bonus culture they have built around their activities. Where else do such incredible sums get thrown at people with such gay abandon? How did it all start? Its insidious effect has even moved over to the public sector, where managers also now look to extra awards for merely doing their job. Getting money from Joe Public has never been easier; plastic cards by the hundred thousand now help grease the wheels.
Almost uniquely, banking is in a position to bring the whole system crashing down. That is why the innocents have been successfully compelled into saving the guilty. Only the stiffest penalties we can devise will do to punish those who have set the financial crisis in train. We must never allow ourselves to be put in a position like this again.
What a scandal that people who saved up all their lives, forgoing foreign holidays and the like, must see their savings decimated to prop up the feckless, as well as profiteering, bankers who were lending – where they care to do so – at sometimes twenty times what they are charged.
It is unfortunate that no economic model other than capitalism has been shown to deliver growth and prosperity, and it will always be down to the cleverest and best educated in our midst to operate it. But that very fact is what makes it so reprehensible that they have done this thing to the trusting billions around the world. Apart from the wicked greed they have displayed, they have provided priceless ammunition to the misguided enemies of capitalism who, even now, would drag us back into discredited and dangerous other models such as communism. (Incidentally, these Occupy protesters are confusing capitalism with corporatism, but that is not the point.)
There are four measures I believe could save us from a re-run of this saga. The first, as I have already detailed, involves banging up bankers. The second is the protection of whistleblowers. Once again here, Uncle Sam leads the way; he does not put his trust so much in setting up expensive regulatory agencies and quangos, staffed, in so many cases, by second-raters who dance to the tune of the Bob Diamonds of this world. Instead, Uncle Sam goes for insider information which makes it all the easier to secure convictions. And he gets it by rewarding the whistleblower with a percentage of any fines levied on the corporation for its misdeeds.
Right across the board, the whistleblower performs a valuable and often courageous service – often without reward. He or she is frequently someone who has witnessed scandalous activities which affront their conscience. In this country, however, whistleblowers are treated like pariahs. The people exposed – be they in the health or civil service – close ranks and sack the whistleblower. Once again the good man or women is made to pay for doing the right thing.
The third suggestion concerns our regulators. Since there will always be a need for close scrutiny of important financial activities, these agencies must be staffed by the very best – people who are cleverer than the people they are scrutinising (and not, as at present, the other way round). To secure these clever clogs, we are going to have to pay them top rates; that way, the dullards will find it next to impossible to bamboozle the cleverer man.
My fourth and final suggestion is a proper clear out of the top echelons of the Civil Service when a new government takes office. Often these civil servants are appointees who, if they disagree with the new government’s policies, will foot-drag as only the Civil Service knows how – ‘Yes Minister’ style. The clear out should take the form of the various head of departments being obliged to offer their resignation; if the incoming government feels they are not ideologically opposed to their manifesto, are on top of their brief and unlikely to be obstructive, then it could choose to keep them in their post.
Ordinarily it is not a healthy thing to look for scapegoats in any and every bad situation, but neither is it sensible to ignore blatant wrongdoing.
Bankers have done terrible things to the peoples of the western world.
What has to be understood by the banking community is that they are in a position of trust. People deposit their precious savings in what, until recent times, was the certainty that when they needed them they would be safe and available. In old age, it would be there to ameliorate the sadder downside of being old.
The funds which the banks hold are, quite obviously, not their money; and they have certainly not earned a right to keep it. If they see it as part of their proper function to grow depositors’ money, then they are only entitled to do so in ways that are totally safe. But this is no longer their priority.
They have also have come to see themselves differently, almost as though they are the elect of god. Lloyd Blankfein, Chief Executive of that wicked empire, Goldman Sachs, certainly didn’t seem to be in any doubt when he declared in a 2009 interview that he was “doing God’s work”.
They traded financial instruments so fiendishly complex that only the former NASA scientists that created them understood them. Collateralised debt obligations? They might as well be speaking another language.
Viewing themselves as godlike Olympians with the power to move mountains, they set about gambling on a scale never before known in human history. In the run-up to the financial crisis, investment bankers annually exchanged financial derivatives to the value of one quadrillion dollars in international financial markets. To put that figure into perspective, by 2007 financial institutions were annually exchanging 10 times the inflation-adjusted value of the entire planet’s manufactured goods over the previous century.
Theirs, in their world view, was not a job to be compared to any other. The sheer scale of their operations proved that. They revelled in the sobriquet awarded them: ‘Masters of the Universe’.
Buying into the bankers’ warped take on life were the politicians, ever greedy for the crumbs which were dropping wholesale off this beneficent table into their coffers. As with the make-or-break power of the Murdochs, the politician – when asked to jump – would only reply: how high?
Now events have conspired to puncture the hubristic dreams of these lords of creation. We, the blameless, have been obliged to mortgage our and our children’s future to save the rotten system and, in the process, their necks.
The hole they have dug for us is pitiably deep. And meantime, we learn of hungry children being bought meals at their schools by their teachers.
Do we see contrition for the misery they have inflicted on so many millions, or gratitude for what has been done to keep them in work while so many others have been laid off? Do we indeed!
That shameless bonus escalator is again in full swing and everything as far as they are concerned is again business as usual. For the rest of us it is deep anxiety, joblessness, falling living standards, savings returns decimated, and no guarantee that we’ll ever get out of it.
The question therefore arises of why there should not be a system in place, as there is partially in the US, that allows for prosecutions and prison terms. Would ‘Fred the Shred’ be luxuriating today on his £400,000 a year pension were he to have been operating on the other side of the pond?
Malpractice which impacts so horrendously on people’s lives, and the very survival of the system that keeps the world afloat, should not be without the severest sanctions where it can be shown that wrongdoing has taken place.
Footballers cannot operate except within a strict framework of rules, and yet a system which can bring down the world is allowed to do virtually as it pleases. The trouble is that the people we would have to rely on as the enforcers are too much involved and in hoc to the people they are being asked to police.
Four years into this banker-driven recession we are entitled to ask why nothing meaningful has been done. Would they be so ready to destroy our livelihoods if they knew that they would face prison terms for bad and criminal practice?
That senior executives of Barclays Bank this week have awarded themselves two-thirds of their company’s profits, leaving the remaining third to the shareholders, strikes me as little more than corporate theft… or grand larceny, for want of a better term.
One way or another we have to find ways of cutting these unrepentant Masters of the Universe down to size.
Gordon Gekko, of the 1987 Wall Street movie starring Michael Douglas, would have been proud indeed that his “greed is good” message to the world had been so thoroughly absorbed and acted on by his successors.
We have recently learned that the executives of the top 100 FTSE companies will have collared 205 times the pay of their average workers within the next ten years. Fifty years ago, it was considered acceptable for the man at the top to earn twenty times that of the man on the shop floor.
Yet the FTSE barons have been awarding themselves an increase that averages 13% for each of the past twenty years. And this is from the very people who have been laying off thousands of their workers during these years of recession. They don’t even feel obliged to look after their own.
There is a shamelessness to be seen that sets no limits on greed.
Even performance does not come into the equation; failure will attract reward to almost the same degree as success.
Just like the politicians with their fraudulent expenses, the bankers in their casino madness just don’t get it. They feel themselves to be unjustifiably picked on: the hapless victims of a wicked witch hunt.
The virus has spread to the Civil Service, the Town Halls, the Utilities and others paid from the public purse. They too have seen the chance to enrich themselves: they too have joined this pernicious business of ratcheting up the pay differentials.
Is there no limit to the shamelessness on display? Would a differential of a thousand times satisfy their ravenous appetites?
Desperate to plug the glaring hole in the country’s finances, the Chancellor of the Exchequer must wait to get the better part of half a billion pounds that Goldman Sachs owes all of us. Despite a £1.5bn profit from its British operations, they have found a way of delaying payment which they readily admit is due. Shame on them.
That bank truly represents what a former British Prime Minister once memorably described as the “unacceptable face of capitalism”. No bank in history has had so many fines levied on it for scams and bad practice.
As for the American CEO of Barclays, Bob Diamond, he truly does live up to his name. That £26.4m package of his would buy an awful lot of the sparklers. Never mind diamonds being a girl’s best friend. They’re Bob’s, too.