Allow me first to set out my credentials for addressing this issue. Between 1983 and 1997 I worked at or around Director level in the Investment Banking Divisions of six different banks based in The City of London.
I have watched the latest banking crisis unfold over the last few years from my little farm on the Rutland-Leicestershire border where I have spent my time since 1997 building a small diversified farming business, and a farm shop with outlets at London’s Borough and Broadway markets.
On every single occasion on which a financial institution has made a negative announcement, I have felt it in my bones that there was far worse to come. I have listened to, watched and read the opinions of a wide range of pundits, some self-styled, some appointed; some, like Robert Peston, knowledgeable, many, if not most, woefully out of their depth.
The so-called ‘Banking Crisis’ has raised one simple question more than any other. That question is:
WHAT CAUSED THE BANKING CRISIS?
I have just read an anecdote which comes close to the answer. Andrew Rawnsley in The Observer of Sunday 1st July 2012 relates a tale told by Ed Balls, City Minister in the Brown Government. Balls was being shown around the trading floor of a financial institution by its Chairman. Balls pointed to a group of traders and asked his host what they did. The Chairman confessed that he did not know. Apparently at the time Balls thought little of the answer. It should, of course have alerted him to the fact that something was terribly wrong.
I moved from bank to bank during my fourteen years in the City for a variety of reasons. Such job-hopping was partly the ‘hired gun’ nature of my job. Moving was learning. Moving was a way of moving quickly up the pay scale. I was poor at playing the political game necessary to stay put and advance my career.
My first banking employer was Nomura International. Nomura was then the largest and fastest moving of the Japanese Investment Banks. I was very young, but fell quickly into a position of huge responsibility which involved underwriting substantial financial risks for my employer. Our Chairmen, however, during my time there, were regular visitors to the trading floor. I can still feel the force of their respective hands on my shoulders on the many times when they would come down and stand behind me as I sat at my desk managing positions of hundreds of millions of various currencies in the International Bond Markets. These Chairmen, in sharp contrast to the one remembered by Ed Balls, knew and understood what was going on. They may not have been experts in each and every of the products we were involved in, but they understood the principles involved and, most importantly, they understood the risks undertaken. They would appear without warning and quietly walk around the trading floor stopping at each department. If they had entered on the other side of the floor the earliest sign of their approach would be of a sea of people jumping to their feet and bowing. In the early days we normally had a Japanese head of department who worked along -side or nominally in seniority to a non-Japanese (Gaijin) head of department. The Chairman would normally talk first to the Japanese person and then to the Gaijin. In the case of the International Bond Syndication desk, that was me. Of the six banks I worked for, a major cause of my departure was my inability to stand by and play the political game when members of senior management put their organisation at unnecessary risk because they did not understand the business of which they were in charge.
I remember Nomura International’s Chairman speaking to a group of graduates early in their careers. The most important message of his presentation was for us to understand that despite our different jobs and titles we were essentially all doing the same job. That job was to represent the institution that employed us. We were all, in effect, salespeople.
At the heart of what I learned at the beginning of my time in Banking was an understanding of risk. The meaning of risk was taught like a religion, it underlined, underpinned and pervaded everything I did.
As I rose through the ranks, I took on more and more responsibility and with responsibility came more and more risk. In time I became one of the key people who priced the risk which the bank took in certain areas. As I learned more, so the market took on what were viewed as greater and greater levels of sophistication in terms of the structuring of deals. I was never the greatest fan of the derivatives market as its products became more and more esoteric and complicated. In part this was because I found the structures proposed more and more difficult to understand. In many cases I simply could not see how the structure could possibly do what was claimed of it. Now we know that in many cases, the structures did not do, could not do, what had been intended. Ultimately I formulated a very simple rule based on an assessment of my own capabilities. I reckoned that I was in the middle of the stream of intellectual ability and so, where the decision was mine, If a deal was proposed that I could not understand, it did not get done unless it could be explained fully and properly to me.
That simple rule, call it the ‘rule of clarity’ began to be ignored by senior bankers in the late 1990s, and as Ed Balls’ tale demonstrates, a massive lack of contact between the top of these financial institutions and the shop floor, coupled with lack of understanding made for very, very bad decision making.