Sunday, April 28, 2013

Why we must rediscover our capacity to be shocked!

A friend writes to me and chides me gently for my idealism.

He means it kindly, he thinks I am far too remote in my criticism of the banking/political galère, he thinks I need to get out more, and get in line with the real world.

He seeks to make a comparison between the recent Suarez incident and the banking mess we find ourselves in. He says;

"...I think that banking is just one manifestation of the natural order of life with football being another...The disgusting behaviour of Suarez being a very plain example of “being above prosecution”. He is a barbaric thug and should have been banned for life from playing in the English league, which is probably the limit of the FA’s jurisdiction. If this correct justice had been handed down then no doubt his agent would have engaged a stack of lawyers to show loss of income and therefore require compensation. His team have said there are no grounds for the normal 3 match suspension being extended to 10..." 

He continues; "...I’m reminded of “Society adopts the morals it can afford”. Society has to decide what we can afford. If we cannot make examples in sport that impacts the income of one person there is no hope for “affording” decisions that will impact thousands. I don’t see banking as being any more morally bankrupt that most of society. Sad, but to my mind true. Therefore to change banking we have to change society which after all is the fulcrum..."

In many ways, I am almost forced to agree with him. He is a good man, a brilliant businessman, who has worked very hard to provide for his family and taken huge risks to make a great success of his business career. He is a winner by anyone's standard, and he is worthy of respect.

Yet he and I have always differed on our ideologies towards what determines the fundamental truths in life. It doesn't alter our friendship, but it does alter our outlook, and I find that I am still uncomfortable in the recognition that he believes that "Society adopts the morals it can afford", because that comes too close, for me, to Oscar Wilde's definition of the cynic, "...the man who knows the price of everything, but the value of nothing..."

The last few years have opened up for me a startling insight into the condition of our lives, and I have watched while all the norms with which I was brought up and which I used to take for granted, basic honesty, truthfulness, loyalty to one's word, integrity, moral conduct, common decency, dignity, and fairness, were traduced, discarded and turned on their head by the actions of so-called professional men and women whose job it was to put wholly new and proto-acceptable meanings into what was, by any ordinary standards, behaviour which should have shocked normal people beyond measure.  

It is this growing incapacity to be shocked by straightforward wrong-doing which I believe is rendering us increasingly desensitised to improper conduct in public life, whether in sport, politics, banking or any other area of social interaction.

Indeed, I believe there is a deliberate policy on the part of certain professional attitude or opinion formers, P.R agencies, lobbyists and some journalists, to deliberately inculcate a sense of confusion and inconsistency in the way in which improper conduct is viewed. 

We have lost the moral compass as far as I am concerned, and we now have real difficulty in determining what is right and what is wrong, and how those two conditions should be dealt with.
In the latter years, we have seen the High Street banking industry turned into a vast organised criminal enterprise, where, in the pursuit of ever bigger profits and shareholder value, the institutions we once trusted to look after our money and to provide fair advice which we could rely on, have turned into a savage crime gang whose entire efforts seem to be aimed at parting us from our savings in the most shameless ways possible. 

I have received so many reported case studies from ordinary men and women which purport to deal with the way they have been allegedly financially manipulated by HBOS,  among other institutions, that I have to believe that some if not the vast majority of these allegations are true. There are so many of them, and all of them revolve around a fairly common theme, a re-evaluation of an underlying asset for the purpose of acquiring or securing a loan or further advance of funds; a purpoorted investment opportunity; a subsequent re-consideration of the value of the security, quickly followed by a demand for re-payment of the entire capital, and subsequent foreclosure. The stories all follow the same predictable course, huge legal fees, little or no legal redress, inconsistent court decisions, lengthy delays, little or no help from any of the formal agencies of support, the Financial Ombudsman Service, the FSA Complaints procedure, et al! Weasel-worded lawyer's letters, denials of basic assistance and even more protection for the banks themselves.

 It is all fairly nauseating stuff.

This is to say nothing of the institutionalised level of downright fraud perpetrated by the PPI scandals. The PPI episode was a deliberate and concerted series of actions by banks and financial services providers to cheat and defraud their clients out of billions of pounds worth of their money. The sums involved become an integral part of the problem, because they begin to distort our sense of values. Ordinary men and women do not talk in terms of billions of pounds, nor indeed, millions. Very few of us talk in terms of hundreds of thousands, we all of us have financial horizons, which in most cases revolve around a few thousand pounds, and usually involve our taking out a mortgage.

When an industry engages in a level of criminal fraud running into billions of pounds, we should be genuinely shocked and concerned. There should have been a vast public outcry and the perpetrators should have gone to prison. Can you imagine the scenario if a gang of Romanian immigrants had carried out a crime spree netting them £2,000,000? It would have been headline news and police agencies around the country would have been mobilised to deal with the scandal. But these frauds were committed by the banks, so no headlines! We had lost the capacity to be shocked by such conduct, and it was allowed to become part of the UK's continued enslavement to the High Street banking Industry.

HSBC engaged in a deliberate campaign of international drug trafficking. They deliberately and wilfully decided to launder the proceeds of Mexican drug barons' profits, and set up a string of banking structures to achieve their ends. The Mexican institution was a 99.99% wholly-owned subsidiary of another HSBC entity called HSBC (Latin America), which was in turn a 99.99% wholly-owned subsidiary of HSBC in Canary Wharf.

We are not told whether any one in HSBC had been advised that laundering drug proceeds was against the law, but it didn't seem to matter to HSBC, they just did it anyway. And when the news broke into the public domain, no-one appeared to be in the least shocked or surprised! 
Indeed, some went so far as to seek to defend the failure of the so-called regulators, the Fantastically Supine Authority, who had studiously failed to do anything about this widespread criminality. One Government Minister, who presumably now knows better, went so far as to opine that the FSA had no jurisdiction over the Mexican bank, despite the fact that it was wholly owned by a British bank in London!

Barclays bank, RBS and others, went on a market manipulation spree, totally distorting the LIBOR market. Was anyone shocked? Apparently not! 

One of the investigators employed to listen to the taped recordings of the dealings of the traders who were engaged in the worst of the manipulation allegations, has described their outraged shock and concern when hearing what was on these tapes. Employed to undertake a review of the recordings to establish what evidence could be gleaned from them, the investigator was primarily concerned to establish whether their own technical competence would be sufficient to understand what they believed would be the highly complex and arcane language used by professional bankers when talking to each other in dealings.

'...I have never heard such vile filth and outrageous conversations...' was the investigator's report. '...The language these men used was just couched in the vilest and most obscene swearwords, everything they say is portrayed in the most violent sexual terms, when they succeed in a deal, they have 'really fucked someone over'! When they are cheated, they have been 'regally fucked'! All they can talk about is the amount of drinking they do, the drugs they snort and put up their noses, and the women they habitually screw. They are all constantly cheating on their wives and laughing between each other about the tricks and excuses they use to deceive their wives and partners. These were the worst kind of conversations I have ever had to listen to, these men are worse than the most brutalised animals...'

This young person had not lost the capacity to be shocked, and the sense of outrage was clear as they described the experience. So why were the managers and compliance personnel in these banks not shocked, why were they not willing to make a stand and set down markers for the kind of professional behaviour they required to be adopted?

They had lost the capacity to be shocked by the antics of these gonzoids, and that has rapidly become the lietmotif of our times.

The new Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby has been an important member of the Banking Commission. On Saturday 27th April, he talked about :

 "...In banking, in particular, and in the City of London a culture of entitlement has affected a number of areas - in which it seemed to disconnect from what people saw as reasonable in the rest of the world..."

The Archbishop has identified the zeitgeist, the underlying sense of superiority which identifies the City of London, the 'culture of entitlement', or as I have reported it before, the 'anomie of affluence', the sense of normlessness that comes with the receipt of untold wealth which is not truly earned!

This is what has been allowed to flourish and has been well-nurtured by successive governments and their pathetic attempts to regulate the Square Mile and its denizens. This is what makes bankers believe that they are a 'protected species'! This is what makes them demand salaries and bonuses which offend the sensibilities of ordinary people, because they are addicted to the right to get their own way, they have traditionally been allowed to get away with this crap!

They have never been confronted by a strong man or woman for that matter (Thatcher didn't take them on), and told, 'It's time to cut you boys down to size'! Blair couldn't do it, he needed the City too much to help finance his geo-political ambitions! Attacking Iraq was soup and nuts to the Square Mile, a lot of people stood to make a great deal of money from the invasion, why does anyone think that Blair had to tell so many lies to get Parliamentary agreement to back the Americans? Blair had already promised Bush that he would support him, but he had to get the House of Commons on side. 

Brown wouldn't do it, because he was too busy counting the money that the City was allegedly bringing in through its fantasy financing initiatives, and Brown was willing to be seduced into believing what he wanted to believe! This is why the City players have habitually been able to talk down to Governments and threaten them with plans to take their business elsewhere, if they don't get their way.

This is why they have always been able to preside over a series of purported regulatory reforms which have never worked, and have never been intended to work for that matter! Only a completely demented fool would observe the history of the SIB and the FSA and try and persuade themselves that this was a regime of regulation that was anything other than one entirely run in the interests of the practitioners. Wholesale crimes have been committed, billions of pounds worth of value has been siphoned out of the pockets of investors, but no-one has gone to jail, and if that isn't an insider's market, then I don't know what is!

All the time, the City has quietly got on with the job it does best, looking after the criminal proceeds of others who are willing to pay for a discreet laundry service. Now, we are beginning to get some insights into the offshore banking crimes, and in particular the way that major charities are used to provide convenient cover to money laundering schemes being run through the offshore entities. 

For those of us who have had to deal with the offshore sector for many years, this is nothing new, neither is the phenomenon of setting up clever charities and trusts for wealthy individuals, and families to shelter behind in any way novel. When you see how it works, it is truly shocking, but we have lost our capacity to be shocked any more!

David Cameron talks about the need for transparency in tax matters and he calls for the end to aggressive tax avoidance, but he has to come to terms with the fact that the world's leading tax advisers, both lawyers and accountants, live and work in the Square Mile, and they have access to the world's most disparate selection of tax and corporate secrecy jurisdictions. That is why so many of the world's dodgy dealers come to do business in London, because they know that Perfidious Albion will offer them a safe haven and ask no questions!

Cameron is kidding himself, the rest of the financial world knows that the UK is the world's leading offshore financial secrecy centre, this is what we have become by selling all our principles and allowing our moral compass to become completely distorted.

Daily, I receive letters and e-mails from ordinary men and women who ask me to find the time to help them in their campaigns against the wrong-doing they have suffered, and I am forced to reply saying that I simply do not have enough time to take on every case which I am invited to review. It is incredibly sad, because these all appear to be decent people who have been the victims of crooks and spivs and who are entitled to better treatment than they get at the hands of our so-called regulators.

We used to have independent agencies, until they proved to be too effective, and were shut down. The Ombudsman or the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration proved to be a wonderful recourse for help, but his findings against civil servants' incompetence and negligence proved to be too embarrassing for them, and they shut down his effectiveness by creating the Financial Service Ombudsman instead. From what I hear of this agency, they seem to be very circumscribed in just how effective they might otherwise be!

So, we must hope that the new regime of control will re-discover its ability to be shocked by criminal and dishonest behaviour. The insouciant shrugging of the shoulders that characterised the last regime of regulatory oversight, coupled with the elevated diatribes of gobbledegook and wabble-speak uttered by its Chairman, are a thing of the past, and that we can now start of look again it criminality, and see it for what it is, and deal with it accordingly. 

If we cannot do this honestly, we truly will get the morality we can afford!


Jason said...

Well I'd say your friend knows nothing. Tell him to look up the recent history of Iceland for one thing:

Iceland's Stabilized Economy Is A Surprising Success Story

They were incredibly badly hit in 2008. They tightened, they punished the criminals, and they let banks fail. They also supported the worst hit. The result is a better position than Europe or US.

So: this is nothing to do with whether we "can afford" morals. Not having morals is costing us.

(Even making sure the poor are solvent helps -- economies based on consumerism don't grow if the consumers have no money.)

The good news though Rowan is that I think people still do have the capacity to be shocked. They need to work up to it, they need specific triggers. One could argue this is stupid. I wouldn’t exactly disagree.

But do look at the examples I gave in earlier comments -- the Milly Dowler phone hack in particular. Outrage did follow, and not because no-one had known illegal hacking was happening. So why? Because the innocence of the victim and the appalling callousness of the perpetrator were unavoidably highlighted and never out of the press.

Jason said...

(Forgot to subscribe.)

AbogadoNZ said...

The underlying tone of this edition is somewhat sober and seems to suggest there is nothing that can be done in the face of a supine media and regulatory bodies.

I disagree and history supports my views. Take the old South African regime as an example. The UK governments of the 50's and 60's were not willing to apply any meaningful political or economic pressure to bring about change and heaven forfend that they would support or finance opposition groups (unlike now - look at Syria). What happened? The public got in behind a boycott movement and interrupted trade and sporting/cultural contacts. In time the new South Africa emerged. Let's try the same with UK banking. Start with naming the bankers. Once their names and addresses are known we the community have to deny them access to services with resolution and conviction. Nothing illegal mind. When they feel the real pressure and their daily lives become intolerable they will sell their blighted homes (for a loss) and leave the country. We may not get them to prison but they will be gone and the message will be clear - don't mess with the British public. Worth a try?


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