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Barclays needs the courage to lead way in banking reform

Another month, another damning report on British banking.

This time, the bank in question, Barclays, asked for it. In the wake of the scandal over the rigging of the inter-bank lending rate, which resulted in a £290 million fine and the departure of the chief executive Bob Diamond, Barclays commissioned a review of its operations by Anthony Salz. Its publication yesterday made "uncomfortable reading" for the chairman, Sir David Walker, but there would have been little point in the £17m exercise if it had not done so.

In many ways, the Salz report is a re-telling of an old story we know only too well in relation to RBS and HBOS: rapid expansion in the years leading up to the financial crisis produced cultural change. As a result of business practices which rested on uncertain foundations, there was an over-emphasis on short-term financial performance, reinforced by a bonus and pay culture that rewarded money-making over serving the interests of customers and clients. Similar conclusions about the running of HBOS are expected from the Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards investigation into its failure. Severe censure of the former chairman and two former chief executives, who many feel have so far escaped too lightly, is anticipated.

Mr Salz's report, which is highly critical of Barclays, will be welcomed by bank customers because it links pay and the behaviour of some individuals. It finds: "We could not avoid concluding that pay contributed significantly to a sense among a few that they were somehow unaffected by the ordinary rules. A few investment bankers seemed to lose a sense of proportion and humility." This shows there is a problem with bonuses and public criticism is not merely the result of envy but concern about financial stability. Mr Salz clearly identifies an urgent need to change the culture so that risky behaviour and inappropriate sales are not rewarded to restore trust. This challenges the claim by bankers that a curb on bonuses will cause banks to leach their top talent: at Barclays, the top 70 executives receiving up to 35% more than their peers at rival banks. The reward system must be overhauled at every level and in every financial institution.

Barclays says business practices adopted earlier this year are substantially aligned with the Salz review's recommendations but this sounds hollow following the news last month that 428 staff received more than £1m in 2012. This is a reduction from the 728 who were previously paid bonuses of this scale but there appears to be a reluctance to completely jettison the high-reward culture, with an indication only last month that long-term incentives are to continue.

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