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It's not just Barclays, it's not just the UK, and it's not just banks

Mon, 9th Jul 2012

Let’s be clear. It’s not just Barclays, it’s not just the UK, and it’s not just banks. The limited liability public company, the central institution of capitalism, is rotten at its very core (or corp). We don’t need an inquiry into Libor rate-fixing, we just have to break the banks up – even the FT now thinks so – and some criminal prosecutions. What we do need is a root-and-branch enquiry into the putrefying corporate governance that is at the heart of this and every other recent scandal, including the mother of meltdowns in 2008.

It’s not just Barclays (what would its Quaker founders be thinking now?). You can’t fix rates by yourself: it takes two to tango, or up to 20 dancers in this case. In the UK RBS, which we own, and HSBC are also in the line of fire. What’s more, the Libor affair has been known about for ages. As Tony Hilton pointed out in characteristically blunt fashion in the Evening Standard  the FT’s Gillian Tett was writing about it five years ago, which makes the boss’s expressions of shock-horror ring more than a little hollow.

It’s not just the UK. As the ripples spread wider, the US too is waking up to the possibility of ‘a rip-off of almost cosmic proportions – trillions of dollars that average people would otherwise have received or saved that have been going to the bankers instead’, according to Robert Reich, a previous US Labor Secretary. Citigroup, JPMorgan Chase and Bank of America, along with UBS, and Deutsche Bank are under suspicion. But even as they struggle to avoid this whammy, they are already reeling under another. Only a few days ago Rolling Stone’s redoubtable Matt Taibbi chronicled a decade-long US municipal bond-rigging scam that was uncannily similar to Libor, down to the verbal high fives and semi-sexual flirting of the perpetrators, employees of ‘virtually every major bank and finance company on Wall Street’, according to the author.

It’s not just the banks. While the banks have hogged the headlines, consider this. Also last week the London-listed pharmaceuticals giant GlaxoSmithKline agreed to cough up $3bn and has pleaded guilty to criminal conduct to settle charges of misselling drugs, including to adolescents. As the FT observes, ‘people caught doing that in nightclubs go to jail. People caught doing it to generate extra sales get a telling-off from the US Attorney’s office’. This is billed as the biggest healthcare fraud ever in the US. In the four years since 2012, GSK has set aside no less than £5bn to settle legal claims for sales and marketing malpractice and product liability.

Nothing could surprise us any more about the banks. But the astonishing things about the GSK affair, apart from its size, are first that no one has batted an eyelid, and second – and this should really set the alarm bells ringing – pharmaceuticals are heavily regulated. Indeed, light-touch banking regulation is often unfavourably compared with with the much heavier drugs variety. If dangerous substances like drugs are strictly controlled and regulated, shouldn’t dangerous financial ones be, too?

To which the answer is yes, of course they should. But, as the Glaxo case demonstrates, don’t expect regulation to prevent bad behaviour if the entire culture is toxic; if bad behaviour is the norm.

I don’t know how many different ways there are to say this. Barclays, the other banks and GSK aren’t the exception, a few rotten apples in a barrel of healthy ones. It’s the healthy ones that are the exceptions. Business is an ethics-free, amoral wilderness because that’s what it’s been designed to be. Self-interest, not responsibility or duty of any kind, is the organising principle around which Anglo-US governance codes revolve. The only social responsibility of business, Milton Friedman helpfully reminded us, was to maximise profits within the law, to give back to shareholders. In these circumstances, legislators and commentators throwing up their hands in horror at the Libor scandal are latter-day versions of Casblanca’s Captain Renault, declaring himself ‘shocked, shocked to find gambling going on’ in Rick’s cafe as he calmly trousers his winnings.

The banks are an extreme case because the leverage they have built up in the headlong pursuit of individual profit threatened, and still threatens, the entire edifice of world finance. But it’s only quantitively different from Glaxo, Murdoch and any number of ‘ordinary’ companies which have learned from business schools, governance codes, consultants and their peers that governance is all about the alignment of self-interest for the benefit of shareholders and has nothing, zero, zilch to do with morality or wider duties in any shape or form. As the much-missed Sumantra Ghoshal, himself a business-school professor, noted in 2004, ‘By propagating ideologically-inspired amoral theories, business schools [and all those underpinned by their theories] have actively freed their students from any sense of moral responsibility’. As is becoming clearer every day, the practical consequences of this ethics-free experiment have been momentous, altering the shape not only of companies and the economy, but of society itself.

Tinkering with the banks and fiddling with votes on pay is like treating cancer patients with herbal tea. As Gary Hamel has pointed out, limited liability status is an extraordinary privilege that has been granted to companies and investors not as of right but because it fostered vigorous enterprise and thriving markets that in turn led to economic growth and all the societal benefits that stemmed from the latter. If it no longer delivers those benefits, and if companies systematically abuse it to socialise losses and privatise profits, the privilege should be removed. We should go much further than breaking up the banks.

I’m with Ngaire Woods, Oxford Professor of Global Economic Governance, who recently suggested that the investment or casino banks should be re-incorporated with unlimited liability – which, as partnerships, they effectively were until the 1990s. Similar sanctions should be imposed on other gross or habitual defenders like GSK. The high and mighty who run them should be forcibly reminded that they have no god-given rights; their privileges are granted under licence. Free enterprise, as Peter Drucker put it in 1954’s The Practice of Management, one of management’s foundation texts, ‘cannot be justified as being good for business. It can be justified only as being good for society’.


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User comments

Henning :: 9th Jul 12
The US regulation of "pharma" is tough, tougher than in the UK, but it is focused on drug quality, efficacy, and safety -- not on finances. There have been numerous scandals involving the marketing and pricing of prescription drugs, by other giants like Merck and Pfizer. Because government is a big customer, law enforcement is active, but big pharma's lobbying clout is immense, as witness Medicare Part D, providing coverage for prescription drugs to American seniors: the only way the law could get passe
Henning :: 9th Jul 12
(continuation)...passed was with a provision prohibiting the negotiation of drug prices. Health plans have long been negotiating large discounts, and so have state-run Medicaid plans for the poor.
Logistics :: 10th Jul 12
Bribery of doctors in the UK has been going on for years. We are not only talking about fancy trips to exotic locations on the pretext of attending a conference but also incentives to prescribe. Over twenty years ago, I was shown around a pharma companies warehouse and noticed that half the racking was full of garden furniture. Somewhat surprised, I enquired if they had taken on an outside storage contract. "Oh no" was the reply "these are incentives for the doctors - the more they prescribe of our produc
Logistics :: 10th Jul 12
-the more they prescribe the more furniture they get until they have a full set". Nothing changes, only gets worse.
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