Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Who really should resign for the Barclays interest rate scandal?

The banking sector needs another scandal like a hole in the head. Or maybe that's the wrong metaphor. Because a quick death from a headshot might be more preferable to the excruciating, but likely never fatal, torture of interminable crises that we seem to be constantly enduring.

The latest bout of banking misery comes from the UK, where Barclays, the retail and investment banking giant has fallen foul of regulators for manipulating the interbank interest rate over a number of years during the mid 2000s.  It's a huge scandal that looks set to engulf not just Barclays, but potentially also a slew of other banks, and even maybe the Bank of England and the UK Government.

One of the more interesting facets has been the reaction from Barclays. What a week it has been. First a number of senior executives including the CEO Bob Diamond reacted to the media criticism by announcing they would forgo their bonuses. Then, as the scandal escalated, the Barclays Chairman, Marcus Agius announced his resignation. In a dramatic turnaround, the following day Agius was reinstated and CEO Diamond announced his resignation, along with his right hand man, Jerry del Missier.

So the big question is: who really should go in a scandal like this? The Chairman, the CEO, or someone else? The answer, of course, depends on the type of scandal, the level of knowledge of the activity that the senior leadership had (or should of had) as the events unfolded, the likely best route to reform, and of course the likely reaction of stakeholders. With Barclays it seems right that Agius, the Chairman, has (on second thoughts) decided to stay. The Board is unlikely to know about an activity such as the interest rate rigging, and so cannot be held culpable in their overseeing function. It is different from, say, the role of the Board in something like Enron's accounting fraud, which is directly related to the Board's role, and relates to accounts that they must have seen and approved.

With Barclays, you would expect the Board and its Chairman to take a central role in dealing with the problem once it has been revealed to them, which apparently was only days ago. As one member of the House of Lords scathingly remarked upon Agius's resignation: "The board is so hopeless they've just shot the head of the firing squad and missed the prisoner." By resigning Agius was signalling that the Board was unfit to be a "firing squad" and instigate the kind of change necessary at the bank.

Turning to Diamond, one of the main reasons forwarded for his resignation has been the "lightening rod" argument, as in the UK newspaper, The Guardian's analysis: "Diamond, under pressure from the banking regulator and the governor of the Bank of England, Sir Mervyn King, quit after he decided he would be the lightning rod for the scandal at the hearing".

It's not the first time we have heard this argument about the resignation of a prominent CEO in recent times;  News International made exactly the same claim regarding the departure of CEO Rebekah Brooks in July last year in the wake of the phone hacking scandal.

Why the lightening rod argument? Well, it enables the CEO to continue to proclaim their innocence, despite stepping down. Their resignation is not due to guilt but is to save their firm from excessive media and political criticism. The idea is that it is supposed to diffuse the storm of negative publicity - the brave leader falling on their sword to save the company.

The problem, which we saw with News International, and which is already happening with Barclays, is that it doesn't really work.  For a start, no one really believes the argument. So the media is just as likely to respond by digging even deeper expecting there to be more secrets that the company is trying to hide by jettisoning the CEO.  Secondly, even if you get rid of one lightening rod, the critics will readily find another .... or they will simply continue targeting the same one in the hope of more revelations. Barclays found this to their cost last week after lightening rod no.1, Agius quit, only to be replaced by lightening rod no.2, Diamond. As The Telegraph put it: "Mr Agius is thought to have hoped his departure would serve as a lightning rod to conduct anger away from the bank and Mr Diamond". No chance.

It seems in this instance Diamond was responding primarily to pressure from politicians and to a lesser extent shareholders. Numerous influential voices were calling for the CEOs resignation and it is no coincidence that the Barclays share price rose on the announcement of Diamond's departure, despite him being up until recently strongly supported by investors. In other words, Diamond's resignation was primarily a symbolic act to appease stakeholders.

This is all very well, especially at a time when trust in big banks is at an all time low. But it is not necessarily the best course of action for actually dealing with the root problem. Mind you, the root problem is not 100% clear at the moment. Whilst Diamond was blaming "a small minority", others were were laying the blame at the culture at the bank or even of the entire sector. So although Diamond's proposed solution  - to “get to the bottom of what happened”, punish those involved, enhance internal controls, and change the bank's culture - may on the face of it make sense, this scandal has all the hallmarks of a more deep-seated systemic problem.

One bank and one CEO can't change an entire sector, especially when no one, not even the guy that's resigning, seems willing to take personal responsibility. Did he symbolise a culture that needed changing, Diamond was asked today. "I don't think so at all," he replied. Institutions like the banking industry are based on taken for granted assumptions that are highly resistant to change. Symbolic resignations are not the answer. But maybe they are a start.

Photo by SomeDriftwood. Reproduced under Creative Commons Licence

1 comment:

  1. And if you realized that during the hearings he constantly and consistently addressed the members of the committee on a first-name basis - while he was addressed properly/ appropriately - the whole debate gets another spin. (Read the transcript of the hearing!)
    IMHO this is expressing disregard towards governing bodies. And this in turn would mean that this a major systemic flaw of how banks opereate will not change if left like it is now. Anf regulaters hopefully will realize now that they are seemingly not taken serious.


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