NO single person was responsible for the banking crisis and no single person will solve it, but even so the news that Stephen Hester is to step down as chief executive of the Royal Bank of Scotland is a significant moment in the continuing struggle to return the banks to good health.
Mr Hester took on a job at the height of the crisis when few others wanted it, for a salary that was much smaller than he might have received elsewhere. There are credits and debits in his record, but he succeeded in steadying the RBS ship.
On the credit side, Mr Hester did his best to establish a new, more restrained tone at a bank that was once the most tenacious of the City profit-hunters. He publicly accepted that banks had become overly focused on profit and had forgotten the customer. He also showed considerable prudence in increasing the bank's capital levels and ridding it of around £900bn of assets the bank had acquired at its bloated height in 2008.
On the debit side, there have been thousands of job losses at RBS – the most recent being another 2000 this week – and Mr Hester's record on bonuses is mixed to say the least. He showed personal restraint by refusing to take his own bonus – albeit with the Government and critics breathing down his neck – and he succeeded in reducing the total amount paid in bonuses between 2010 and 2013 by 50%. However, the amounts involved will still seem staggeringly high to some observers; the figures show that last year, there were 95 RBS employees who earned more than £1m.
The point is that Mr Hester appeared to do his best at a difficult time. The official line from the bank is he could not commit to the job for the next five years and take the organisation through privatisation but it seems clear that he felt frustrated by the relatively slow progress towards that privatisation and the fact that the apron strings were still being held by the Government. The fact that this well-regarded and popular chief executive has now carried through on his threat to step down is bad news for a bank that needs stability not more uncertainly.
However, the future of banking is about more than one man and, even though Mr Hester has steadied the ship, it is the final destination that matters. This week, the Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards, set up by the Government last year to examine ethics in the financial industry, will publish its long-awaited report and it is that 600-page document that must be the beginning of profound change.
Mr Hester accepts that banks had switched focus from customers to profit but it is an institutionalised refocusing of these priorities that needs to be central to the future of banking. Mr Hester also cut bonus payments, but there must be a fundamental change to the kind of bonuses that are paid with executives having more of a vested interest in making sure the business does well.
We are sad to see Mr Hester go, but it is these and other changes, combined with closer monitoring and tougher penalties for banking executives who fail, that will provide a route map from here.
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