Following on from yesterday’s Indy article about the HBOS Rights Issue, can we at least stop subsidising fraudulent conduct in banks?

Tom Harper’s excellent article questioning whether or not investors were given key financial facts regarding the HBOS Rights Issue in 2008, provoked some serious outrage on the ‘Twittersphere’ yesterday – and quite rightly so. http://www.independent.co.uk/news/business/news/hbos-accused-of-misleading-the-public-over-4bn-rescue-9701791.html

I don’t suppose the Government, Lloyds, the Regulator or the BoE will be happy with that line of investigation. Not least because it opens the door to a whole torrent of questions about how many other transactions, involving state subsidised banks, have been less than transparent?

And perhaps the biggest question will be – was the information in the Lloyds/HBOS Merger proposal, as accurate and transparent as it should have been?

I am sure Lloyds bank will say the HBOS Rights Issue was nothing to do with them as it pre-dated the merger. But in order for the Merger Proposal to be correct, it should have contained watertight data about the financial state of HBOS – which, reading Tom’s article, I’m not sure it could have? I’ve looked at the Proposal and it relies on financial accounts for HBOS and Lloyds TSB dating back to 2005 – although conveniently, it only relies on unaudited accounts for HBOS in 2008. Not that it makes much difference because, sadly and to add weight to yesterdays article, the Big 4 auditors appear to have been equally confused as to the solvency of the banks despite the audited accounts, as shown in another excellent article by Ian Fraser, November 2010: http://www.ianfraser.org/connolly-i-do-believe-that-auditors-performed-well/

What I find really upsetting about all this was brought home this morning by an article from the Positive Money site (following up on an article by Jill Treanor in the Guardian). The article dates back to December 2013 and explains, in very clear and simple terms, how banks continue to be subsidised and why. https://www.positivemoney.org/2013/12/uk-banks-benefited-38bn-big-fail-state-subsidy/ And of course, if we are still subsidising the part state owned banks – we are also subsidising bankers’ bonuses – which, considering neither Lloyds nor HBOS have managed to comply with the terms and conditions of the 2008 bailouts, seems entirely unjust not to mention bonkers. In a letter I received from the Treasury dated 15/05/09, Lloyds and HBOS agreed to meet the following terms:

A range of conditions are attached to the recapitalisation package. Lloyds TSB and HBOS have agreed that over the next three years they will maintain the availability and active marketing of competitively priced lending to homeowners and to small businesses at 2007 levels. They will also provide support for schemes to help people struggling with mortgage payments to stay in their homes and the expansion of financial capability initiatives. The remuneration of senior executives will follow strict guidelines – both for 2008 (when the Government expects no cash bonuses to be paid to board members) and for remuneration policy going forward (where incentives schemes will be reviewed and linked to long-term value creation, taking account of risk, and restricting the potential for “rewards for failure”). The Government will also be consulted on the appointment of new independent non-executive directors…”

Joining up all the dots, I begin to get a very clear picture of La La Land and it’s not pretty. As I am definitely a layman in these matters (albeit a fairly well informed one), I thought I’d take this opportunity to share my view of what’s happened over the last few years.

Round up of events in La La Land.

In 2008 and after exceptional spending sprees by both the banks and the public, the proverbial finally hit the fan and many banks ran out of money. The Government, terrified they’d have a repeat of the Northern Rock débâcle, gave the banks billions from the taxpayers’ coffers. As this resulted in mass austerity, the Government were loath to let anyone know exactly how bad a shape some of the banks were in (some were insolvent) and they certainly didn’t want the public to know the exact details of the billions being handed over, so they did their best to keep it all quiet. They (and the banks) even kept it quiet from the people being asked to invest in the banks via rights issues and/or sanction the HBOS-Lloyds merger, although they didn’t have to keep it quiet from institutional investors, because they were ‘in the know’ and had no intention of investing in insolvent banks.

The banks took the money but totally ignored the social responsibility that went with it (terms and conditions) in the same way they ignore little things like money laundering laws or Principle 1 of the FSA Principles of Business: A Firm must conduct its business with integrity. Actually I struggle to see how most banks comply with any of the FCA Principles: http://www.fca.org.uk/static/documents/handbook-releases/high-level-standards136.pdf Section 2.1

However, after the credit crunch the banks could no longer be seen to lend with reckless abandon (which was a bit annoying, as they rather liked basing bonuses on inflated loan books), so they invented other reckless and ingenious ways of making money – e.g crippling the SME sector and stealing assets. Best of all, having totally screwed up and taken everyone’s money, they came up with their most ingenious plan to date – they sold us all the simple concept that – if we didn’t allow bankers to keep taking bonuses, they’d walk away – and then we’d all be screwed. To make sure that dreadful day never comes, we continue to subsidise banks so they all live happily ever after.

That sounds like a pretty dark fairy story and the darkest bit is – it’s not a fairy story. So I hope somewhere, someone in authority (not mentioning any names Mr Tyrie) will have read Tom Harper’s articles, Ian Fraser’s articles and I’m hoping Max Keiser will invite Paul Moore back on the Keiser show to talk about the appalling behaviour of HBOS, Lloyds and other banks. Because, crazy as is it and despite all the rules, laws and regulators we have, I think our best chance of getting banking reform is to report bank misconduct to the media and then spread the word via Twitter? Of course, that could ultimately do enormous damage to some banks but I can see little alternative to this course of action. It’s a huge problem that while we definitely do have regulators, it seems La La land is out of their jurisdiction – which is the obvious reason they cannot do anything to penalise errant bankers.

*Here’s a thought – if we’re going to rely on journalists to clean up the banking world – maybe we should be paying our financial journalists (and their research teams) more and getting rid of regulators? We’d save a fortune and get some results.

Anyway, what upsets me most about all this is how we continue to let ourselves be mugged and my point is: If banks are intent on continuing to cheat their customers, destroy SMEs and refusing to compensate the people they defraud while insisting they still get huge bonuses – fine. It seems there’s little we can do about it. But can we please, please stop subsidising this conduct?

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