A new year and, for bankers, it seems, a new regime. Not a tough new rule book which would help regulators to clamp down on the outrageous behaviour that caused the 2008 crisis and the ensuing economic recession, but a regime in which an official review into the culture of banking has been abandoned and the government has U-turned on a pledge to toughen up the rules holding senior bankers to account.
What has prompted this change of heart? Have the bankers mended their ways after the $150bn (£96bn) of fines imposed on major banks since 2008? (Those fines, incidentally, have deprived the real economy of $3tn of credit, holding back growth around the world.) Perhaps rules to clamp down on bankers’ bonuses have finally started to erode the “greed is good” culture of the City? Or have banks started to treat their customers with respect after paying out £27bn in compensation for sustained mis-selling of payment protection insurance?
There is little evidence to suggest any of this has happened. In the coming months (possibly weeks) Royal Bank of Scotland – rescued with £45bn of taxpayer money – is expected to hand over billions of dollars to the US authorities because of how it sold off dodgy packages of mortgage debt in the run-up to the financial crisis. While RBS might try to pass the penalty off as a “legacy issue”, it is also awaiting the outcome of a review by Britain’s Financial Conduct Authority into its treatment of small business customers.
Barclays – still being investigated by the Serious Fraud Office over the way it raised money from Middle Eastern investors to avoid a taxpayer bailout – provides the clearest illustration that fines do little to change behaviour. On the day after it was fined for rigging Libor in 2012, one of its traders was busy fixing the price of gold despite the immediate public backlash following the interest rate manipulation penalty.
When it comes to pay, bankers are also having the last laugh. The bonus cap imposed by the EU, instead of putting a lid on excess, has resulted in bankers getting a boost to their fixed pay through new handouts alongside their salaries and bonuses. Data last week showed how four US banks paid out at least £736,000 to almost 900 individuals in 2014. The 2015 bonus season is about to begin, and will no doubt be just as lucrative.
On the crucial matter of how banks treat their customers evidence of reform is also thin. Lloyds Banking Group has been fined for a bonus culture that put staff under pressure to sell. Santander also showed it had scant regard for its customers by naming Chris Sullivan as its new corporate business chief at 8pm on the day before Christmas Eve. Sullivan left RBS – where he was deputy chief executive – exactly a year ago after being forced to apologise to Andrew Tyrie, chair of the Treasury select committee. Tyrie had accused him of being “wilfully obtuse”.
This is the backdrop against which a more softly-softly approach is being adopted for big City firms, no doubt in a bid to ensure that HSBC does not move its headquarters out of the UK. George Osborne appears to be in some confusion. In November he was talking tough, saying bankers were getting off more lightly than shop lifters. But a few months earlier the chancellor had set out his hopes for a “new settlement” with the City, signalling a more relaxed approach after being released from a coalition government.
It seems to be a good moment for Tyrie – who presided over the parliamentary commission on banking standards set up in the wake of the Barclays Libor-rigging fine – to step forward. His committee is the one hope for making sure that bankers will not be able to sleep easy in 2016.
Ashley will struggle to copy John Lewis
Sports Direct’s attempt to turn itself into another John Lewis will begin in earnest this week. Mike Ashley’s comment that he wants to make Sports Directhis chain the best employer on the high street behind John Lewis was unprecedented. In the coming months we will see whether he means what he says or whether the 15p pay rise for staff was, as trade union Unite claims, a PR stunt.
Key things to watch in 2016 are how the retailer changes its employment practices and its share price. The more the shares fall, the more Ashley will be pressured into sweeping changes.
The shares have been under strain since a handful of City analysts claimed Sports Direct may be past its peak. The company’s pile-it-high-and-sell-it-cheap approach has attracted bargain-hungry shoppers, but its reputation has been tarnished with customers and key suppliers. Major brands such as Adidas and Nike have become unhappy with Sports Direct’s presentation of its products and turned instead to JD Sports to launch new trainers and football shirts. In 2015, Sports Direct shares fell almost 20% while JD shares more than doubled.
Sports Direct is revamping its stores and moving to larger, out-of-town locations, but this could deter the canny customers who have made the company what it is. Some of Sports Direct’s overseas businesses are also struggling, so Ashley and his lieutenant Dave Forsey have a lot on their plates.
While the rest of the world starts a new year by looking ahead, retailers begin January by looking back. Christmas trading updates kick off this week with John Lewis, which is expected to set the benchmark for performance as well as working practices. Ashley and Sports Direct are a very long way from both.
This rail fare rise is unreal
By the standards of recent years, commuters may feel they have escaped lightly as they return to work with rail fares having increased by a mere 1.1% after the weekend’s annual rise. Even among the worst-hit season ticket holders, few will see their train operator lift more than an extra £60-£70 a year from their wallets. But before passengers thank George for small mercies, let’s not allow the chancellor to persist with his claim of a real-terms “freeze” on fares. The rate by which they are rising is pegged to the retail price index, a measure the government scorns when it comes to other areas. Inflation as generally counted – the CPI measure – is zero. This is, in real terms as well as on the bank statement, another of the manyfare rises, small or large, overt or by stealth, that have compounded and accrued to make Britain’s privatised railway the most expensive in Europe. And now, that little bit more so.