During the week I attended a farewell function for a retiring colleague. The turnout was impressive, a sign of deep respect earned over a career at the bank spanning more than forty years. In the speeches, a recurring theme was trust.
The primary business of a bank is lending money, which exposes the bank to credit risk, the risk that a borrower will be unable to repay the loan. On more than one occasion, our retiring colleague had turned down a loan based on prior bad experiences with the prospective borrower. Why would you lend money to someone who has lied in the past? Learning from past betrayals of trust proved time and again to be a wise risk management strategy.
In Trust: The Social Virtues and The Creation of Prosperity, Francis Fukuyama argues that trust has played a crucial role in the development of capitalism. While some point to the role of the rule of law for enforcing contracts in enabling business, Fukuyama emphasises that legal recourse only serves as a last resort. More important is the simple confidence of a handshake: the confidence that those you do business with will live up to their end of the bargain. Those societies which developed mechanisms for extending trust beyond small networks of families and friends were rewarded with greater economic success.
If trust is important for business, it is particularly so for banking. But, scanning the financial headlines over the last few months shows a banking system apparently intent on destroying society’s trust in banks and bankers.
Barclays is just the first bank to be fined for allowing traders to manipulate the LIBOR interest rate benchmark. The scandal cost chief executive Bob Diamond his job and this story will be back in the headlines as the findings extend to other banks and civil cases unfold.
Before a US Senate hearing, HSBC’s head of compliance faced charges that the bank had acted as knowing banker to Mexican drug cartels. He acknowledged that “there have been some significant areas of failure” and resigned his position there and then.
The BBC article in the link above is coy in its language. The New York Department of Financial Services is a little less so. Page 5 of their report quotes a Standard Chartered executive as saying, “You f—ing Americans. Who are you to tell us, the rest of the world, that we‟re not going to deal with Iranians?”
The front page of the Economist epitomises where this has led.
The worldwide reputation of bankers is at its lowest point, in my lifetime at least. The result will be new and more stringent regulation and more intrusive oversight of banks by regulators. This outcome will be well-deserved as banks have proved themselves unworthy of the trust of their communities. However, it is also likely to keep borrowing costs and transaction fees high as banks struggle to deliver shareholder returns while covering the costs of new regulatory requirements. So, it will not just be banks bearing the cost of their misdeeds.
Trust is hard to earn and, once lost, harder to recover. Every bank around the world should be thinking very hard right now about how to restore trust in banks.