Ian Robertson writes: On 11 August 2011, Bob Diamond, chief executive of Barclays [who resigned today], delivered the BBC Today Programme business lecture. In it he declared that “culture” was the critical element in responsible banking, and the best test of it is “how people behave while no one is watching.” We now know that banking failed the test and so must ask why, in [Governor of the Bank of England] Sir Mervyn King’s words, “excessive compensation”, “shoddy treatment of customers”, “mis-selling” and “the deceitful manipulation of a key interest rate”, flourished in the banking sector. Cognitive neuroscience can point to some answers.
Senior bankers hold enormous power, greater than that of many elected national leaders. Largely unaccountable except to occasional shareholders meetings and often quiescent boards, their power is much less constrained than that of democratically elected leaders. And given that power is one of the most potent brain-changing drugs known to humankind, unconstrained power has enormously distorting effects on behaviour, emotions and thinking.
Holding power changes brains by boosting testosterone, which in turn increases the chemical messenger dopamine in the brain’s reward systems. Extraordinary power causes extraordinary brain changes, which in their extreme form manifest themselves in personality distortions, such as those seen in dictators like Muammar Gaddafi.
The “masters of the universe” who have arisen out of a deregulated world financial system were given unprecedented power that inevitably must have caused major changes to their brains. While power in moderate doses can make people smarter, more strategic in their thinking, bolder and less depressed, in too-large doses it can make them egocentric and un-empathic, greedy for rewards – financial, sexual, interpersonal, material – likely to treat others as objects, and with a dulled perception of risk. [Continue reading...]
Joris Luyendijk writes: David Cameron’s announcement of a parliamentary inquiry into the professional and cultural standards of the financial sector is likely to lead to the worst of all worlds. It all but precludes a genuinely wide-ranging Leveson-style inquiry, while handing this inquiry over to some of the very people who should be investigated: the political class.
The Leveson inquiry is so valuable because it not only digs into the professional and cultural standards of the British media, it also dissects its deeply unhealthy and corrupting entanglement with virtually the entire political establishment. Would a parliamentary inquiry have brought out all that? Imagine the Leveson inquiry headed by Tom Watson or Alastair Campbell.
To his credit, Labour leader Ed Miliband has called for a Leveson-style inquiry. His reasoning was puzzling though, arguing that only an independent inquiry would “restore confidence in our financial services”.
Over the past 10 months I have interviewed dozens of people working in finance in London and if I had to name one thing that this investigation did not do, it is restore confidence. External accountants explained how nobody at the major banks can have a complete overview any more – they have become simply too big. Well before RBS ran into deep trouble, IT consultants painted a truly terrifying picture of banks’ software operations. Forget too big to fail or too big to rescue, IT and accountancy interviewees said. We need to talk about too big to even manage. This former IT expert asked:
“Are so-called chief information officers, the top executives responsible for IT, aware of this? I doubt if they are and if they care. They are managers, skilled in office politics, not technical experts. Most CIOs rarely stay in their post more than a few years.”
Going over the 70 interviews now online here, a picture emerges of major banks whose CEO admiral is really a really well-paid PR operative, tasked with convincing the outside world that he is in charge of his fleet when in reality nobody any longer is.
The Guardian‘s Graeme Wearden reports live: Barclays has dragged the Bank of England, and the last Labour government, deeper into the Libor scandal.
Its submission to the Treasury Select Committee includes an email apparently written by Bob Diamond [the CEO of Barclays who resigned today] on 29 October 2008 (when the crisis was raging), following a telephone call with Paul Tucker of the Bank of England. In the message, Diamond writes that Tucker told him that “a number of senior officials in Whitehall” had expressed concern over the Libor numbers that Barclays had been reported (the rate at which other banks would lend to it).
The email goes on to suggest that other banks have been submitting rates that did not reflect their true cost of borrowing, and concludes by suggesting that Tucker had suggested that Barclays Libor submissions did not need to be so high.
Here is a full transcript of the message, which was sent to then chief executive John Varley, along with Jerry del Missier:
Further to our last call, Mr Tucker reiterated that he had received calls from a number of senior figures within Whitehall to question why Barclays was always toward the top end of the Libor pricing. His response was “you have to pay what you have to pay”. I asked if he could relay the reality, that not all banks were providing quotes at the levels that represented real transactions, his response “oh, that would be worse”.
I explained again our market rate driven policy and that it had recently meant that we appeared in the top quartile and on occasion the top decile of the pricing. Equally I noted that we continued to see others in the market posting rates at levels that were not representative of where they would actually undertake business. This latter point has on occasion pushed us higher than would otherwise appear to be the case. In fact, we are not having to “pay up” for money at all.
Mr Tucker stated the levels of calls he was receiving from Whitehall were ‘senior’ and that while he was certain we did not need advice, that it did not always need to be the case that we appeared as high as we have recently.
This is dynamite, although I must caution that the Bank of England has not had a chance to respond.
*: RED, incidentally, stands for “Robert E Diamond”, and is the nickname used by Barclays staff.