Jeff Salway: No sign of banks changing ways

Adam Applegarth, chief executive of Northern Rock, dubbed 9 August, 2007, the world-changing day. Picture: TSPL
Adam Applegarth, chief executive of Northern Rock, dubbed 9 August, 2007, the world-changing day. Picture: TSPL
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NEXT weekend marks the seventh anniversary of “the day the world changed”.

That’s seven years for the banking industry to get its act together and start the cultural overhaul that was so obviously needed.

It was Adam Applegarth, chief executive of Northern Rock, who dubbed 9 August, 2007, the world-changing day. That was the fateful morning when French investment banking giant BNP Paribas stopped investors taking money out of its funds as the scale of the US sub-prime catastrophe became clearer.

A month later the crunch well and truly arrived on these shores when Northern Rock hit the skids. The rest is history.

And it would be convenient for the banks if we could indeed consign those remarkable events to history and just get on 
with it.

In the UK, of course, the banks at the centre of the crisis have pledged reform. They insist they have learned their lessons and that they understand the need for a deep-rooted cultural overhaul.

But while that degree of change could take a generation, the signs so far aren’t too encouraging. Look at the headlines from just three days last week.

They told us about Barclays, Santander and Lloyds setting aside yet more money for PPI mis-selling compensation. The PPI bill for state-backed Lloyds alone is now above £10 billion, while it’s also been forced to set aside £226 million for a rate-rigging fine.

Meanwhile, the regulator accused firms of “unacceptably” failing to put customers’ interests first after a review of the way they execute investment orders when trading on their behalf.

Then we heard that Barclays, which was fined for Libor rigging two years ago, is fighting US allegations over its treatment of customers in its “dark pool” trading operations.

The headlines that Barclays has attracted for its various misdemeanours certainly don’t help chief executive Antony Jenkins – dubbed “St Antony” – who likes to position himself as the man leading the charge towards a more socially responsible era of banking.

He talks a lot of sense, does Jenkins, and last week claimed that the bank was a “very different organisation” to the one he took over almost two years ago.

He may be right; only time will tell. But that’s the point – evidence that banks understand the need for change and are prepared to implement it is desperately thin on the ground.

It’s hardly surprising, as they’ve barely processed the lessons from the credit crunch and the ensuing crisis. Sure, there have been a few commissions, but most banks remain vociferously opposed to the more wide-ranging proposals, such as the ring-fencing of investment and retail banking proposed by the Independent Commission on Banking.

I recently interviewed a former chief executive of Shell (and once a director of a UK high street bank), who told me that the banking industry had missed a golden opportunity for genuine reform. Part of the problem was that they simply weren’t prepared to sit down with their opponents and seek to work out a way forward, he said.

It’s hard to argue with that. For all the promise in the words of Jenkins, banks (and many other elements of the financial services industry) remain defensive, unwilling to engage with critics and unprepared to accept the need for root-and-branch reform.

Sadly, the result is that, almost seven years after the credit crunch, we’re little closer to a sustainable banking culture in which ordinary customers are viewed as something other than a target for exploitation.

What will it take to trigger genuine reform? The thought is enough to make you shudder.