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The promised brave new world of banking has not materialised

IN the five years and four months since the collapse of US player Lehman Brothers brought the UK banking sector to the brink, there has been much wailing and gnashing of teeth over how to engineer radical reform.

There has been a lot of talk, plenty of lobbying by the banks, and way too much hot air. There has been far more heat than light. Half-hearted measures have been implemented but, in reality, nothing much has changed.

The bonuses keep on coming for the investment bankers. Society's demands to know the reasons why this particular group of people only seem to be motivated to work with extra rewards, beyond their basic but nevertheless often jaw-dropping salaries, continue to fall on deaf ears.

There has been some tinkering with the way bonuses are paid, for example in shares rather than cash and sometimes featuring deferred elements. Potential for clawback has also been discussed.

The key point is investment bankers continue to be paid the big bonuses they demand. This sticks in the craw, particularly as it was the behaviour of this group of people which left us staring into the abyss in autumn 2008. Millions of ordinary people around the world are still paying the price.

On Monday, Royal Bank of Scotland announced fresh exceptional charges totalling about £3 billion, in an unscheduled trading statement, described as "provisions for litigation and conduct-related matters", as the taxpayer-backed institution struggles to leave the past behind it. These latest provisions are aimed at covering litigation related to mortgage-backed securities, and redress for customers claiming they were mis-sold payment protection insurance or interest-rate hedging products.

Royal Bank of Scotland chief executive Ross McEwan pledged, before stepping into the top job last autumn, that he would not take a bonus for the rest of 2013 or 2014. We heard earlier this week that those who serve with him on RBS's executive committee will not take a 2013 bonus.

As a gesture, this is welcome. But it is of little consequence, particularly given strong signals from RBS that it still wants to pay its investment bankers big bonuses, or at least feels the need to do so.

The argument from all the banks seems to be that everyone pays the big bonuses, so they must follow the market. It is lamentable, given the havoc wreaked by the global financial crisis, that leaders of the major nations have been unable, or unwilling, to do anything serious to break this tiresome circular argument.

Prime Minister David Cameron continues to make great play of how the Coalition Government will limit the cash element of RBS bonuses. So what? Big bonuses are still being paid. Ultimately, the share elements of the bonuses can be turned into cash.

We have also had the fiasco of trying to boost competition in the banking sector. There was the proposed sale of Royal Bank of Scotland branches to Santander - a deal which fell apart.

This paled into insignificance relative to Co-operative Group's effort to buy a package of branches, including the Lloyds TSB Scotland network, from Lloyds Banking Group. Co-op, it has turned out, was in no state to make any such acquisition.

There continues to be talk about boosting competition, through selling off packages of branches.

UK Government adviser Lawrence Tomlinson, who produced a scathing report about RBS's treatment of many business customers, talked again on Wednesday about splitting up RBS and Lloyds. Labour leader Ed Miliband has also been talking about breaking up the banks. It might be a nice idea, but lack of progress thus far indicates it is probably mere fantasy.

The brave new world of banking we were meant to have had by now has, in short, not materialised. And there are plenty of signs that things could get worse before they get better.

Mr McEwan, who took the top post at RBS after a near-five-year period in which predecessor Stephen Hester focused on the fall-out from the pre-financial crisis days when the bank was run by Fred Goodwin, will unveil his grand vision next month.

Given what Mr McEwan told The Herald in an interview last April, and subsequent signals, it would not take a rocket scientist to work out that he will be looking at a slimmed-down branch network and that his plan is likely to involve heavy job losses.

These job cuts would come on top of tens of thousands already implemented by RBS, and would seem likely to hit back-office staff hard.

Barclays has made it plain this week that it will prune its branch network.

And Lloyds Banking Group announced 1080 job cuts on Tuesday.

Bankers, including Mr McEwan, might believe customer service can improve amid relentless cost-cutting because of investment in technology to allow, for example, people to bank using their mobile phones.

Regardless of what the management consultants might tell you, however, shedding staff and improved customer service do not generally go hand-in-hand. So there is surely a danger customers will face more misery in dealing with their banks.

And what is for sure is that front-line and back-office bank staff, not the Masters of the Universe in investment banking, will pay the price as the big players continue to slash their costs.

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