There is no such thing as the banking profession; Self-inflicted injuries result from a lack of both common purpose and shared values

Last updated: February 12, 2014 7:13 pm

There is no such thing as the banking profession

By John Gapper

Self-inflicted injuries result from a lack of both common purpose and shared values

Antony Jenkins’ efforts to change the culture of Barclays by cutting bankers’ pay are on hold. At its investment bank, it is paying bonuses that are 13 per cent higher to “compete in the global market for talent”. The bank’s chief executive wants to reform the pay of US and Asian investment bankers but it is beyond his control.

His problem – shared with the rest of with an industry struggling to alter behaviour – is that there is no such thing as a banker. There are equity brokers, foreign exchange traders, mortgage salespeople, corporate financiers and all kinds of specialists under one roof. There is no single set of employees unified by a professional culture and a willingness to pull together.

That spells trouble for banks such as Barclays orDeutsche Bank

as they try to introduce “The Barclays Way” or Deutsche’s six new corporate values (“integrity”, “innovation”, “discipline” etc). Banks banged together in a 20-year spree of mergers and leveraged risk-taking, while old skills were replaced by computers, have little culture left from which to rebuild.

Richard Lambert, head of the UK’s Banking Standards Review (and a former editor of the Financial Times) is trying to fill this vacuum with a new body that would champion good behaviour and encourage bankers to become qualified professionals in the same way as doctors. Restraint must come from individuals, not just banks, he believes.

I sympathise with Sir Richard, not least because he appointed me as the FT’s banking correspondent two decades ago, when Royal Bank of Scotland and others were starting their trek towards self-destruction, but he does not have much to work with. The classic “banker”, an experienced, judicious loan expert, is a mythical figure.

The best chance, maybe the only one, lies in organisations that are coherent enough for “culture” to have a meaning beyond bland statements of aspiration. That was true of the old Barclays – a patrician family-run bank – and is still true of a few banks, notably Goldman Sachs. Whether or not the culture is salutary, it exists.

Goldman has grown rapidly but without merging with a commercial bank or losing its identity (its biggest deal was taking over J Aron, the commodity broker that employed Lloyd Blankfein, its chief executive, and several other senior partners). Its 450 partners remain a cohesive group in spite of the strains provoked by a shift towards trading.

It was tarnished by how it behaved in the subprime mortgage crisis, and the jury is out on its ambition to be less avaricious and nicer to its customers, but Goldman is at least in control of itself. It cut bonuses after a fall in revenues for 2013, limiting them to 37 per cent of income. When Mr Jenkins tried to pull the pay lever, aiming for a similar result, it stuck.

This is hardly surprising, given how Barclays pulverised its old culture over two decades, as it grew in investment banking. “There was no sense of common purpose in a group that had grown and diversified . . . there were no clearly articulated and understood shared values,” according to the Salz review of the bank’s business practices.

Barclays is an amalgam of everything from a UK high street bank; to de Zoete & Bevan and Wedd Durlacher, the pre-Big Bang stock broker and jobber; to most of Lehman Brothers, the Wall Street investment bank. It would be amazing if a branch banker in Liverpool had fellow feeling for a debt trader in Singapore.

This does not make Barclays unusual; in fact, it is a run-of-the-mill creation of the long boom, like RBS (National Westminster, ABN Amro), Deutsche (Morgan Grenfell, Bankers Trust) or JPMorgan Chase (Bank One, Chemical Bank, Bear Stearns, Washington Mutual, Cazenove & Co etc). All kinds of professions and cultures were thrown together.

Meanwhile, technology undermined the retail banking profession by allowing banks to replace individual judgment with credit scoring. The branch banker was turned into an overeager salesperson of mortgages and insurance policies, many of which were mis-sold. UK banks have paid £20bn in redress for mis-selling of payment protection insurance and other abuses since 2011).

One way to solve this behavioural disaster – an option favoured by Sir Richard and others – is to encourage bankers to take professional exams and rebuild their sense of pride and identity. Bad bankers might be struck off by professional bodies, like bad doctors or lawyers lose licences. It was once common for British bankers to be qualified but only a small fraction is now.

Greater professional pride would not hurt but I doubt it is the answer. Financial analysts already study for qualifications, and that did not prevent problems in the past. Nor is the deskilling of retail banks likely to be reversed, creating a fresh need for traditional bankers – if anything, more work is likely to be done by machines.

Ultimately, banks will have to strengthen their disciplines or create the cultures they lack. The former is a lot simpler than the latter. A bank with a coherent identity and strong leadership can tell its managers to alter course. “We had sessions where we told everyone, ‘things that were OK then are not OK now’,” says one banking executive.

If the bank is in effect starting from scratch, having mislaid its original culture and instead amassed a mish-mash of financial specialists with conflicting skills and attitudes, it is another matter. Mr Jenkins is trying very hard to pull off what may be an impossible task.

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (www.heroinnovator.com), the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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