The banking industry faces a huge task ahead if it is to restore trust and credibility. While it's understandable that much anger and suspicion is directed towards ‘bankers’ for their role in the financial crisis, it has always been too simplistic to blame this group entirely for what happened. It’s time to move on, not least because a strong banking system is in everyone’s interests if the economic recovery is to gain momentum.
Getting there is another matter. The measures taken by regulators, such as the introduction of the Dodd-Frank Act in the US and Basel III in Europe, are necessary to reduce some of the remarkable risks that were being taken with unwitting customers’ money. There does need to be a limit, however, so that the political necessity to be seen to act in order to satiate public opprobrium, combined with a very rational need to reduce alarming behaviours, does not result in throwing the proverbial baby out with the bathwater.
Brian Stevenson, Non-executive Director of Agricultural Bank of China and former Chairman of Global Transaction Services for The Royal Bank of Scotland, says: “If you look at the new regulation that’s being put in place in Europe and the US, together with the FSA in the UK and the new authorities being given to the Bank of England under the new structure of regulation, when you add all of that together, you could legitimately argue that in combination it is going too far. If you’re a large international bank operating in a lot of countries around the world, you’re currently facing a multiplicity of new regulations and new regulators, and they’re not the same.”
The lack of standardisation around the world is a problem, creating a serious competitive disadvantage for some international banks, whereas at least the country-focused banks know they’re competing on a level playing field. “For domestic banks in the UK, it is very difficult to argue that the regulations have gone too far,” adds Brian, citing the issues around payment protection, liquidity and capital planning, to name but three.
Within this, there is also the question of the false sense of security that can occur in the clamour for safeguards and buffers. Steve Pateman, Head of UK Banking at Santander, says: “I may be wrong, but I don’t see that capital and liquidity management in isolation will effectively prevent another banking collapse. It has to be seen in combination with risk management. Anglo Irish would have gone bust with 30 per cent Tier 1 capital, so let’s not kid ourselves that if you’ve got Tier 1 capital of 10 per cent, you won’t go bust.”
Tone at the top
Risk management has to be right – it’s no use, for example, having a well diversified mortgage book if there’s a massive concentration of exposure in highly leveraged corporate entities, as HBOS discovered to its cost. Omar Ali, Partner and UK Banking & Capital Markets Leader at Ernst & Young, says: “In terms of the issues we’ve had since 2007, fundamentally it comes down to a few critical questions; what is the organisation’s attitude to risk?; its culture?; how does it operate? Because, let’s be clear, all banks had rules and policies and regulation was in place already – regulation by itself is not the answer.”
Mary Jo Jacobi, Criticaleye Associate, former MD of Lehman Bros and advisor to the board of HSBC Holdings, says: “The banks need to clean up their own act and demonstrate that they are capable of occupying a position of public trust and of managing their own affairs responsibly. That doesn’t necessarily mean chasing huge profits through highly risky ventures. Of course, one of the reasons we got into the current situation was because the banks were coming up with more and more complex instruments to make money out of basically repackaging the same things. I’m a capitalist and I believe in the profit motive, but I also believe that businesses have a responsibility to understand what they are doing and address the potential consequences of what they are doing.”
Rebuilding faith in the competence of banks will not be easy. According to research from E&Y, some 40 per cent of banking customers globally have lost trust in the industry over the past year; customers are also becoming less loyal and increasing the number of banks they use, with a third of them now dealing with three or more banks.
At least banks now realise they actually need customers and success depends on winning back their trust. Paul Staples, Head of Corporate Finance at BNP Paribas, says: “Regaining public confidence in the provision of banking services will require progressive, visible changes in how we deliver value to our clients. The pursuit of shareholder returns must be blended intelligently with a tangible commitment to social responsibility.
“The project has begun and the next stage is genuine engagement with stakeholders to ensure that key initiatives are better designed through proper consultation. Clarity of communication is essential to regain credibility and to rebuild progressively an enduring trust.”
Over time, banks have been the most ruthlessly profit-focused of businesses. It’s now time for them to reconnect with customers and get back to basics, which means looking at how to provide the best possible service with transparency, such as being clearer about pricing and charges. Whether that is going to occur can be debated long and hard, as the aforementioned cultures within many organisations is entrenched, but given the public’s cynicism towards the industry, those banks that do respond will be at a distinct advantage.
“When you boil it down, banks only really do five things,” says Brian. “They provide a vehicle for customers to make investments; finance for customers; move money from A to B; risk management services; and information and advice on all of those services.
“So, in each category, they have to be careful enough to make sure that what they’re actually providing for their customers is ultimately what they want and there isn’t any form of grand deception or sleight of hand involved in the process."
Helping first-time buyers, supporting businesses, making services quick and accessible across a variety of channels, that’s what people want to see and, if done in the right way, banks should not be pilloried for making profits. “The most important task we as an industry have ahead of us is to show that banking done well is a good thing, but it’s not a battle we’ve done a particularly good job with so far,” says Steve.
Omar suggests that it should be an enormous wake-up call for banks to appreciate the role they have to play in society: “This could create an industry that is better for everyone. Better for shareholders, taxpayers, regulators, customers, the overall economy and the country we live in. I think we have a unique opportunity to improve banking for all stakeholders and I just hope there is the collective will to do so.”
I hope to see you soon.