Financial Services (Banking Reform) Bill — Report (1st Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:15 pm on 26th November 2013.

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Photo of Lord Davies of Stamford Lord Davies of Stamford Labour 5:15 pm, 26th November 2013

My Lords, I remind the House that for a number of years I was a director of a quite large British investment bank—in those days called a merchant bank. We had a substantial lending book as well as a much bigger investment banking business. The firm was the basis of the present London activities of Deutsche Bank.

The noble Lord, Lord Lawson, said earlier that we were focusing on an area where we could actually use legislation to address effectively a major human problem. It is not always possible to address human problems with legislation—he is absolutely right about that. We have spent much of the afternoon talking about separation and ring-fencing, which is important because there is a theoretical risk that any institution could be destabilised for example by speculation in high-risk instruments such as derivatives and that could undermine the rest of the business. That is a theoretical risk; it is sensible to address it and think about it. It has to be managed. It is not actually the reason why we had the collapse in 2008 or any of the recent banking difficulties.

Similarly, the much praised Glass-Steagall regime, which existed in America between the 1930s and 1980s, was premised on the theoretical risk that if an institution could be involved in both underwriting securities and making loans, and that if the underwriting losses were such as to compromise the capital of the bank, the deposits of the bank would be at risk. Again, that is a straightforward, plausible, coherent risk that it is sensible to address but that was not the reason for the banking crisis in America in the 1930s. I will not waste time by going into the reasons for that crisis. Nevertheless, it was a sensible thing to do.

We have been talking up to now about theoretical risks. I do not resent or reject that and I very much agreed with—and just voted for—my noble friend Lord Eatwell’s amendment to try to deal with some of those risks. Now, however, we are on the really key ground, because Amendments 21 and 51, in the names of my noble friend Lord Eatwell and the most reverend Primate, address the real problem that we have encountered face to face in this country in the past few years. That is human error, and even worse than human error, human negligence—and even worse than that, systematic human negligence and systematic human incompetence. I do not think that those words are in any way excessive to describe the activities of the British banking system, and banking systems elsewhere, in the past decade and a half.

Before 2008 there were an enormous number of bankers who appeared to be able to persuade themselves, and their boards, that when yields were coming down in the market, they could somehow preserve their yields without increasing their risk. In other words, fantastic sums of money were paid to people who appeared to be competent, whom the regulators seemed to trust—as we now know, the regulators were asleep at the time—and who appeared to have completely forgotten the first rule of financial theory, which is that there is always a positive relationship between reward and risk: if you get more of one, you will always have more of the other. That is an extraordinary state of affairs to have in a sophisticated society, but that is exactly what we had.

Again, this was systematic. It was not just one bad apple, or one bad individual. In the process of trying to preserve their yields, banks were putting enormous amounts of their assets into new instruments such as CDOs—collateralised debt obligations, which were, basically, securitised mortgages and other loans—without ever investigating what they actually contained. They acted simply on the basis of endorsements by rating agencies that were themselves incompetent. It is hard to imagine the state of Denmark being more rotten than the state of the City at that time. It was an extraordinary systematic problem. People were, for example, lending on real estate with 5% or less equity. They were making absurd and dangerous mistakes, doing things we cannot imagine they were not told about when they were 25 and doing their accountancy exams, or an economics course. We have to focus on that human area and ensure that we have procedures, filters and incentives that are robust and not perverse. Evidently, in this area we have been absolutely inadequate up to the present time.

We are making some progress this afternoon. These two amendments are moves in the right direction. We must ensure that we have the right professional qualifications and the right conduct standards, so that people are being properly monitored. We could—indeed, we should—go further afield and do more, particularly in terms of making individuals responsible. In the United States, when there are serious cases of negligence and breach of the rules, not only is the institution fined—institutions are fined here—but individuals are regularly fined. Individuals are never fined here. In this country, the people making the appalling mistakes that I just referred to have got away scot-free, without paying a penny. That is a national scandal; indeed, it is a national stupidity. It means that there is a real moral hazard: if you can get away with the irresponsibility, the money is for you—“Well done, congratulations”—and if you do not get away with it, you still will not pay anything.

That is why we had the appalling culture of bonuses, in which people in lots of institutions were regularly piling on to their book a whole lot of supposedly high-yielding rubbish and then taking massive bonuses based on the discounted present value of the supposed yield over future years. Then, when they got a large bonus on that completely bogus basis, they would move on to another institution and spread their poison further through the system in that way.

I have described this in dramatic language, and I do not think that I have exaggerated in any way. That is the awful reality of the situation. It is something that regulators—and the public—ought to think about. It is certainly something that legislators must think about. I congratulate the most reverend Primate and my noble friend on their amendments, which we should put to the vote. I hope that they do so, and I look forward to supporting them.