Regulation

Andrew Hill

What strikes me about the findings of the UK Competition Commission’s inquiry into the audit market is that in a world of ever more rapid change, a company’s relationship with its auditor is now often the oldest fixture in the boardroom.

Think about it. The commission says 31 per cent of blue-chip FTSE 100 companies have had the same auditor – almost invariably one of the “Big Four” – for 20 years or more. During that period, on average, most companies will have changed their chief executive at least four times, their non-executive board members (assuming replacement at the nine-year mark, when they lose their independence according to UK guidelines) twice, and their computer systems probably five or six times. Read more

If I were a mastermind seeking to undermine the City of London, I would shift Germany’s financial centre from Frankfurt to Berlin, just as the country moved its political capital from Bonn in the 1990s. Then it would be part of a cosmopolitan city where foreign bankers and lawyers might actually want to live.

Andrew Hill

Adam Posen’s attack on the management and culture of the Bank of England may be the strongest yet, but it is by no means the first – and won’t be the last – criticism of a persistent and dismaying lack of robust governance at the UK central bank.

What is astonishing is that despite countless warnings – three independent reviews, several newspaper editorials and sundry MPs’ warnings – the central charge that the governor is over-mighty and under-governed still stands. Read more

Andrew Hill

For a breed that is rarely found, sleeves rolled up, trying to unblock the U-bend, investment bankers are remarkably fond of plumbing metaphors. Around this time of year, they usually rush to point out just how full their “pipeline” of deals is. (One optimist told the FT this week the very size of this pipeline might itself prove to be a problem.)

The implication is that if some way could be found to clear the impediments, initial public offerings and acquisitions would come pouring out. This wishful thinking leads to some sharp-elbowed lobbying for changes to rules that supposedly deter such transactions. Bankers – and, to be fair, some entrepreneurs – would, for instance, like more flexibility to bring to market companies with a lower “free float” of shares (allowing owners to retain a larger stake). Read more

Some years ago, when I was the media editor of the FT, I used to deal with one David Cameron, the public relations executive of Carlton, a large broadcasting company. Since then, Mr Cameron has become prime minister of the UK while I have stayed roughly where I was.

Andrew Hill

If I kept crashing my car, I might well decide that I needed to keep a bigger chunk of cash available to repair it, but I would also consider whether I needed to improve my driving.

Following the same logic, regulators’ efforts to force banks to hold more capital to guard against operational risk seem to me to address only half the issue: the other half is about ensuring basic management competence at financial institutions.

As Brooke Masters writes in Monday’s FT:

Operational risk covers almost any problem – bar trading losses, bad loans and legal cases – that could damage a bank, such as the weeks of computer problems at Royal Bank of Scotland.

Yet while it may suit banks to characterise some of these operational risks as bolts from the blue – interruptions to the smooth running core business of making money from money – the truth is that most of these incidents start with simple mismanagement. Read more

The saga of Florida’s “hanging chads”, which prolonged the disputatious US presidential race of 2000 well beyond polling day, also left corporate America hanging.

Like a man with a broken umbrella trying to hail a cab in a downpour, the maker of the famous black London taxi is clinging to its last shreds of hope. Last week Manganese Bronze announced it was no longer a going concern and intended to appoint administrators.

Andrew Hill

The contrast between the rhetoric of James Gorman, chief executive of Morgan Stanley, and that of his Barclays counterpart Antony Jenkins – in interviews with, respectively, the FT and the BBC – underlines differing attitudes to the future of banking in the US and Europe.

In remarks squarely addressed to shareholders, Mr Gorman suggests jobs must be cut and pay curbed at Morgan Stanley; Mr Jenkins’ comments, on the other hand, are aimed directly at regulators, politicians and the general public.

That’s partly down to context – the BBC interview was filmed during a visit by the new Barclays chief executive to a UK glass manufacturer, part of Barclays’ campaign to show it is helping customers to export more. Here’s Mr Jenkins:

Barclays has a significant job to rebuild trust, but I’m also confident that we can. It goes back to what we do: if we serve customers and clients, day in and day out, in a way that people perceive as socially useful, then we will rebuild that trust.

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Next week, the Financial Services Authority is due to announce tighter listing rules to deter abuses by London-listed companies. There is cause for disquiet: this week’s implosion of Bumi , the Indonesian coal-mining group part-owned by Nathaniel Rothschild, the financier, follows governance wrangles at the Kazakh-focused Eurasian Natural Resources Corporation.

The “fit and proper” test is regulators’ and professional associations’ tool of choice for assessing suitability for office – a spirit-level for acceptable conduct.

Asked to choose between government intervention in the delicate business of innovation and government withdrawal from the field, I always used to plump for the latter.

Andrew Hill

Barclays may rue having declared its involvement in the Libor lending rate scandal first, but as a consequence it has had first choice of “City grandees” to replace its chairman, Marcus Agius. The bank has managed to land the grandest of those grandees, Sir David Walker.

Author of the Walker report on governance in the financial system (probably the most downloaded document at Barclays’ HQ this week), Sir David is the squeaky-clean face of the old word-is-my-bond City of London, with experience on both sides of the regulatory fence. In 2009, he was one of five wise heads appointed by the Financial Services Authority to vet senior appointments to UK financial institutions (it might be interesting to know just how many of the current and outgoing crop of Barclays’ senior management he helped to approve). If you’re in doubt about what a grandee is, or whether you are one, take my patented multiple-choice questionnaire, published at the time. Read more

Andrew Hill

The sense of shock in London about the allegations levelled against Standard Chartered goes well beyond the stock market where – as of mid-morning on Tuesday – the shares were down by nearly a quarter.

The group is virtually the only large UK bank not to have suffered serious reputational damage over the past five years. That’s partly because its operations are mostly outside the UK and other developed markets, partly, the bank would say, because of its strong culture.

As a result of that unique position – and the high reputation of its senior management — it was the safe harbour of choice for government ministers and their advisers in autumn 2008, when the rest of the UK banking sector was on the brink of collapse. The recapitalisation and rescue plan for the industry, later copied elsewhere, was cooked up in its boardroom, with the help of its top executives, generating a mass of laudatory coverage. Read more

Nearly four years after the Wall Street bailout, the beneficiaries of the US government’s support are battered and unpopular, but still in business. Meanwhile, the regulators that rescued them are in trouble.

Andrew Hill

“I can’t be confident about anything after learning about this cesspit” – Paul Tucker, deputy governor of the Bank of England, to the House of Commons Treasury committee, July 9, 2012.

Paul Tucker’s disgust at the Libor rate-rigging scandal (echoing business secretary Vince Cable) sent me back to records of the last time a foul stench of rottenness overwhelmed the UK parliament: the “Great Stink” of 1858. In that year, the smell of raw sewage, decanted into the Thames through overburdened sewers, reached the Palace of Westminster. It prompted emergency debates on “the state of the Thames”, in which R.D. Mangles, MP, told the House of Commons (as reported by Hansard): Read more

Andrew Hill

Jeff Bezos is famously smart but I wonder whether he has thought through all the political implications of Amazon’s strategy of becoming back-office ecommerce infrastructure provider to the world.

The first part of FT colleague Barney Jopson’s series on the etailer was full of insight, but it was the comparison between Amazon and investment banks that struck me most forcefully. As Barney writes:

One investment banker says Amazon’s position is reminiscent of Goldman Sachs’ dual role as a broker and trader at the centre of capital markets. “People complain about conflicts of interest. But you still have to do business with them.”

Like Goldman and others, Amazon has set out to simplify the life of its clients, so they can concentrate on what they do best.  One business identified by the FT investigation – RJF Books and More – has delegated the “selling, shipping, customer service, payments and complaints” functions to Amazon, which left me wondering what else was left for RJF to do. Simplification was a strong theme of my recent trip to Silicon Valley, where countless start-ups, and a few larger businesses like NetSuite and Salesforce.com, are offering businesses the opportunity to “plug in” their operations to outsourced back-office services and payment systems. Read more

Andrew Hill

Bob Diamond arriving to give evidence to the Treasury Select Committee on interest rate fixing. Getty Images

Bob Diamond arriving to give evidence to the Treasury Select Committee on interest rate fixing. Getty Images

Bob Diamond’s keenly awaited appearance before the Treasury select committee promised much and has so far (it was still going on when I broke off to write this post) offered very little for those seeking to know more about the Libor rate-fixing scandal.

But I think the former Barclays chief executive’s responses have shed light on one puzzle: how did the bank underestimate the public revulsion to the outcome of the investigation so badly? The short answer: the bank thought it would receive more credit in the court of public opinion for having helped expose the mess. Read more

Andrew Hill

Barclays has finally got the order of resignations the right way round. Bob Diamond’s departure – and the temporary restoration of Marcus Agius as chairman, a day after announcing his own exit – hands the can to the man who should have carried it in the first place.

As I wrote in my column on Monday, after Mr Agius said he would go, the resignation of the chairman didn’t mean Mr Diamond had “dodged the bullet aimed at both of them”.

Yet I still think there is worrying evidence that Barclays senior directors are in denial. In ringing the wagons against outside attack, they seem to be pursuing the line that talented individuals have been laid low by external “events” – the word used in Mr Agius’s resignations statement (now rescinded). Read more

Andrew Hill

As his job security plummets in line with Barclays’ share price, Bob Diamond is haunted by what he said in the BBC Today Business Lecture last year about culture:

Culture is difficult to define, I think it’s even more difficult to mandate – but for me the evidence of culture is how people behave when no one is watching.

But Mr Diamond didn’t suddenly wake up to the importance of a strong corporate culture after becoming chief executive of Barclays. He’s been talking about it for years and mainly with reference to his “no jerk” rule at Barclays Capital, the investment banking arm he used to run and that was home to the trading “dudes” skewered in the Libor-fixing scandal. Here he is talking about the rule in an interview with The Times last December:

If someone can’t behave with their colleagues and can’t be part of the culture, it doesn’t matter how good they are at what they do, they have to be asked to leave. You know what a jerk is when you see it. If we ever ignore the rule it always comes back to haunt us.

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