It seems that the rumbling story about HSBC’s Swiss branch has achieved what political pollsters know as “cut through” – meaning that it’s of interest to voters as well as to those reporters who are sentenced to watch Prime Minister’s Questions each week.
The story reminded me of a passage in Wolfgang Streeck’s 2014 article ‘How Will Capitalism End?’ in which he explores the drivers of change that could bring about, well, the end of capitalism. The article deserves more space here on another occasion, but for the moment I just wanted to quote what he writes about his fifth driver, corruption:
Finance is an ‘industry’ where innovation is hard to distinguish from rule-bending or rule-breaking; where the payoffs from semi-legal and illegal activities are particularly high; where the gradient in expertise and pay between firms and regulatory authorities is extreme; where revolving doors between the two offer unending possibilities for subtle and not-so-subtle corruption; where the largest firms are not just too big to fail, but also too big to jail, given their importance for national economic policy and tax revenue; and where the borderline between private companies and the state is more blurred than anywhere else, as indicated by the 2008 bailout or by the huge number of former and future employees of financial firms in the American government.
So far, fairly familiar, if admirably concise. The more important element here is that what this has done is broken the moral story about capitalism – work and the Protestant ethic and all that – that writers such as Max Weber spent so long trying to assemble at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th.
Capitalism’s moral decline may have to do with its economic decline, the struggle for the last remaining profit opportunities becoming uglier by the day and turning into asset-stripping on a truly gigantic scale. However that may be, public perceptions of capitalism are now deeply cynical, the whole system commonly perceived as a world of dirty tricks for ensuring the further enrichment of the already rich. Nobody believes any more in a moral revival of capitalism. The Weberian attempt to prevent it from being confounded with greed has finally failed, as it has more than ever become synonymous with corruption.
Of course, the idea that capitalism has a moral purpose still floats around in political discourse such as “wealth creators,” a lost signifier loking for something to signify.
Anthony Jenkins, the retail banker who succeeded Bob Diamond as the Chief Executive of Barclays Bank, has rightly been criticised this week after the bank announced that it had increased its bonus pool when profits were falling and the bank is pushing through large cuts – 7,000 people – in retail banking. You judge a system by what it does, not what it says it does, and this decision spoke volumes – yelled it from the rooftops, really – about who benefits from the Barclays’ banking system.
I’m indebted to a letter in The Guardian for this account by J K Galbraith of the history of the American economy between 1929′ the year of the Crash, and 1932, the last year of the Hoover administration:
“Gradually interest rates were brought down. The rate at which banks could borrow was 1.5%, hardly a usurious charge. Bonds were bought on a considerable scale and the resultant cash went out to the banks. Soon the banks were flush with lendable funds.
“All that remained was for customers to come to the banks. Now came a terrible discovery. The customers wouldn’t come. Even at the lowest rate they didn’t think they could make money. And the banks wouldn’t lend to those who were so foolish as to believe that they could.”
And people say that history never repeats itself.
The image is a 1932 cartoon mocking Hoover for asserting that prosperity was just around the corner. It is from the Princeton Alumni Weekly, and is used with thanks.
In my last post I wrote about how Art Kleiner’s idea of the Core Group helped us to understand Barclay’s recent history. In this post I am going to develop this idea. If Bob Diamond survived in his position despite his division breaching the rules in 1998 because he’d become a member of the Core Group, we still need to understand why. In the rest of this post I am going to go further into the history.
How the idea of the ‘Core Group’ helps us understand the Barclays’ rate-fixing scandal
Much of the writing on Barclay’s rate-fixing scandal – which has forced the resignations of both the chief executive, Bob Diamond, and the chairman, Marcus Agius – focused on issues of culture, but without asking where culture inside organisations comes from or how it is set, other than maybe an over-simple idea that it comes ‘from the top’. Of course, some of the interest in culture was prompted by the ex-Chief Executive, Bob Diamond, in the BBC lecture he gave last year, which I imagine seemed like a good idea at the time. Andrew Rawnsley quoted a couple of lines in an article in the Observer earlier this month:
“Culture,” he [Diamond] said in a BBC lecture last year, “is difficult to define. But for me the evidence of culture is how people behave when no one is watching.”
So it seems a good idea to look at this through the lens of Art Kleiner’s neglected book, Who Really Matters: The Core Group.
As the Greek financial system lurches from one brink of collapse to the next, it’s worth trying to identify what we know about the current state of the Atlantic financial crisis that broke in 2008. In summary, I think it is this: the present approaches to dealing with debt will fail until the banks take losses as well. And that needs financial and social innovation.
Here’s a thought. One way into several of the policy issues dominating British news headlines – from the future of the national health service, to the Southern Cross catastrophe, to the funding of higher education – is to look at them through the lens of Jane Jacobs’ distinction, in her book Systems of Survival, between systems based on territory (‘guardians’) and systems based on exchange (‘traders’). Most human societies need both. But when we get the distinctions between them blurred, breakdown and corruption follows.
I’ve not been able to blog recently – a mix of work commitments and being away – but I’m delighted to say that during that time the article I wrote with Hardin Tibbs on the global financial crisis has been published in the Journal of Futures Studies. We argue that to understand the financial crisis, it’s necessary to look across multiple timescales, and at the same time. There’s a short-run story about the financial sector, going back thirty-forty years, which is also bound up with a technology story; there’s a longer-run story about energy, which goes back to the development of oil as a significant energy source in the early 1900s; and there’s another – more long-term – story about the end of modernity, a story which started being told around 350 years ago. Each of these suggest a system running up against its limits, and each of them on their own could have caused the crisis. The global scale of the crisis was because these different systemic stories started to interact. And looking at it in this way, it is clear that the crisis isn’t over yet.
(‘Pretty Boy Floyd‘, by Woody Guthrie)
It’s hard to watch the whole bank bonus row unfold without thinking that it seems to be taking place in a social and economic void. To pump some air in, I thought I’d try the ‘Five Whys‘ approach to unpack it a bit.
Why can banks afford to pay huge bonuses? Because they make huge profits.
Why do banks make huge profits? Because the legal, regulatory, economic and political environment has increasingly been stacked in their favour over the last thirty years.
Why has the external environment been stacked in their favour? Well, I had a go at answering that question here, recently, but it’s worth spending some time on the first couple of questions. The answer, at least on one account, is that banks have systematically offloaded risk onto the state. Which, given that they’ve now been bailed out to the tune of billions without having to pay back their previous (or future) profits seems like a fantastically successful business operation; nice work if you can get it.
Don’t offer us legal protection
They use the law to commit crime
I dread to think what the future will bring
When we’re living in gangster time
(“Gangsters‘, by the Specials)
There was a throwaway line by John Kay in his remarks at the TUC’s ‘Beyond Crisis‘ event a couple of weeks ago that didn’t get the attention it deserved: ‘that the financial services industry is by far the most influential political force in modern countries‘. It’s not the sort of language you expect from someone like Kay, despite his fine work on the limits of markets. But further evidence that he might be right followed almost immediately, in the shape of both the pusillanimous Walker Report and the breathtaking Supreme Court decision on banks’ overdraft charges. (To quote an old Goons sketch: Open your wallet and say after me, ‘Help yourself’.) Fortunately John Kay had spelt out his argument in his recent Wincott lecture. Two quotes from the lecture summarise it: first, “prosperity and growth require that entrepreneurial energy should be focussed on the creation of wealth, rather than the appropriation of the wealth of other people,” and second, that, “political freedom is jeopardised by excessive concentrations of economic power”.