Friday, April 15, 2011

When banking incompetence is criminal

It is a matter of public record that banking crises usually reveal criminality as well as incompetence. "when the tide goes out, you can usually see who lost their swimming costume" as the old joke has it. In the course of the credit crunch, it was not just Bernard Madoff- a name straight from Dickens central casting- who was the criminal.

What the crisis revealed was systemic criminality.

These latest allegations against Goldman Sachs are not receiving front page coverage, but they should, because what is alleged is that the "Vampire Squid" is not so much a legitimate business as a conspiracy to defraud its customers. Goldman, remember, is the pre-eminent investment bank in the world: these allegations could hardly be more serious. If Goldman willfully and knowingly cheats its customers, then the whole investment business is nothing more than a multi-trillion racket which not only serves not useful purpose, but is actively malign to society at large. It is not the faintly comic "vampire squid" image, it is instead a deadly social cancer.

Do I believe that the system itself- the system of capital allocation through free markets- is a criminal racket? The answer is that I do not, but as with any aspect of human society, there have to be rules. Rules that can be effectively enforced, and therefore I firmly believe that capitalism can only work within a framework of law. If that framework is eroded, then the possibilities for the rich and powerful to create an exclusive and unfair society can eventually destroy the fairness that underpins both capitalism and democracy itself. Instead of prices being arrived at by free and unfettered competition, we find a situation where prices are manipulated for the advantage of a small group at the expense of the rest of the market.

I have been involved at a senior level in investment banking for over twenty years, and it is becoming quite clear to me that there is insufficient competition in the investment business. Investment markets are supposed to be regulated in order to prevent the accumulation of excessive risk, but in fact regulation of financial markets has largely become a box ticking exercise that eliminates competition from an ever larger group of securities. For example, an investor is now almost always better off buying an index tracker fund than buying a supposedly actively managed investment vehicle that trades in the same markets as the index. Despite the repeated and obvious failure of actively managed vehicles, they continue to gain investors, because in many cases there is very little choice: either a sub-standard exposure to a market is available, or no exposure at all.

This is not a free market.

Across the finance business there are huge numbers of rigged or partial markets, with investment subscription fees being a particular bug bear of mine. The fact is that finance is not delivering to investors the wealth that it delivers to its practitioners.

It is wrong that the employees of investment houses, who do not put up capital, should be receiving a multiple of the return that shareholders or investors, who do provide the capital, receive. It is even more outrageous that those employee returns continue, even when firms make a loss, and especially when those losses are funded by society at large through a taxpayer funded bailout.

If the system is too complicated to be regulated, then it must be restructured until it can be regulated. Vince Cable is quite right: the banking and investment market should be restructured until it actually does provide competition and not manipulation.

If Goldman Sachs, or any other market actor, is found to be a price manipulator, then the solution is clear. They should be prevented from participating in the market.

If Goldman Sachs, or any other market actor is found to a systematically criminal organisation then the solution is clear. They must be bankrupted and eliminated- totally.

When it comes to financial crime, I believe in the corporate death penalty.

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