WHEN, as the old song goes, will we ever learn? A few short years ago, as governments in Europe and the United States hurried to prop up the teetering giants of world banking, we were assured that the financial crisis had been caused by a few over-enthusiastic designers of derivatives and one or two problems with the regulatory system.
Now, as more and more questions are being asked about the Libor scandal in London, we are being offered the same tired old answers. Bob Diamond, former chief executive of Barclays, has resigned over the scandal and will forego bonuses of up to £20 million, the bank’s chairman has told a parliamentary committee – though he will still walk away with about £2m – and British and US authorities are again talking about regulatory reform.
Yet it is increasingly clear that it’s the nature of the banking system itself which is the problem.
Indications are that the manipulation of the benchmark Libor interest rate was not confined to Barclays: banks like Citigroup, HSBC, Royal Bank of Scotland and UBS are now also under investigation. And even if it is found that executives at these banks did not condone the sort of manipulation that Barclays seems to have done, the point is that they could have – and, from the perspective of the banks’ shareholders, they probably should have.
In a financial system which cannot exist without credit, and where the mass of money in circulation so far outstrips the mass of goods and services as not to bear any relation to it, bankers are constantly driven to find new ways to create, package and repackage credit. Derivatives designers in banks and insurance companies are paid to build more and more complex financial products and executives are implicitly incentivised to find ways around restrictive regulations if necessary.
In a recent US survey, 30 percent of Wall Street executives said their salary packages incentivised them to compromise ethical standards or break the law.
What finance minister Pravin Gordhan calls “the reckless pursuit of artificial profits” is fundamental to the system itself. An enquiry or two, the sacrifice of a couple of scapegoats, and some changes here and there to the regulations will not change that.