Trust in banks is abysmally low
Blamed for the financial crisis and vilified for their sky-high compensation for executives, banks are now the "baddies"; but this has to change
It is not just the catalogue of bank misdemeanors that is putting graduates off the industry. The historic inability of banks and bankers to articulate the good they can do is as much to blame.
When did banking become a dirty word? Was it after the Libor scandal, with its awful exposure of the sordid mentality of some of the industrys trading community? No, it was obviously earlier than that.
Perhaps it was after the flurry of rogue trading calamities at the likes of Société Générale and UBS, shocking ordinary folk with the brazen way in which it was still possible for determined individuals to put whole institutions at risk. No, keep going.
The subprime crisis, then, when the world woke up to the interconnectedness of the global financial sector, with massive quantities of debt underpinned by mortgage fraud causing the worst shock to the system since the Great Depression.
That certainly played its part in the minds of the latest generation of graduates, who would have been forming their adult perceptions of the world just as the storm blew up. But no, it didnt start then.
Perhaps the brash 1980s, then, full of talk of ruthless asset stripping and hostile takeovers, junk debt and how Lunch Is For Wimps. The testosterone-soaked machismo of it all. Maybe, but equally you could go back to the 1970s, the 1930s, or earlier. The fact is, money has always had its grubby side.
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For a long time, though, it didnt seem to hurt the industrys ability to recruit willing newcomers. Attracted by the intellectual challenge, the competition and let's not be coy about it the very big paychecks on offer, bright individuals still flocked to it.
Now, though, that is changing. A new survey of UK students by Lloyds has found that only 2% have any inclination to sign up to the cause.
That looks low, but the really worrying numbers are in the other findings of the survey, that more than half trust banks less than they did five years ago and 41% distrust banks and financial services providers. This matters, given that these other graduates will be the policymakers, opinion formers, regulators and investors of the future.
The next generation should see banking as an industry that helps to build economic wealth and is playing its part as a useful member of our local communities, said António Horta-Osório, CEO of Lloyds, commenting on the results of his firms survey. Hes right, but the challenges look formidable.
Regulators have done their bit in driving banks worsening reputation while seeking to rebuild their own.
Keen to show their teeth after years of lax supervision, they are on the warpath, whether by exposing malpractice or imposing requirements so stringent that the outsized returns of the industry are finally set to be reined in with a consequent effect on rewards for those working in it.
The media and principally, its mainstream elements have also contributed. The fact that good news is not news is hardly exclusive to coverage of the financial sector, but a more balanced approach would be an important way of supporting a change in attitudes while not sacrificing the mission of holding those in positions of power to account.
Education must play a part, too, and here the government must be the driver. The financial ignorance of a large proportion of those that have completed their education is nothing short of scandalous. It creates the conditions where abuse is not only made easier, but positively inviting. The various misselling scandals of the last few decades are testament to that.
That same ignorance also helps perpetuate the them-and-us narrative that underlies many outsiders' views of banking.
WORDS, THEN ACTION
In the end, though, the biggest responsibility lies with those in the business. The aftermath of the subprime crisis showed bankers inability to articulate cogent defences of their industry and explanations of why it matters.
Sure, this was tough to do when hardly anyone wanted to listen. But with a few honourable exceptions such as Josef Ackermann of Deutsche Bank few even tried to make the case. And into the vacuum rushes the fury of the mob. Sitting on a panel discussion at Davos is hardly the way to change perceptions on the street. In fact, it typically makes the situation worse.
The good news is that this is also changing. A glance at the comments made to shareholders by bank CEOs at the start of quarterly reports shows a stark difference to 10 years ago. Banks now trumpet more than ever their social responsibility priorities, their relevance to the real economy, the work they do in their local communities in short, a cultural transformation.
It is our responsibility today, as a sector, to think more about the future and how our actions will affect the health, reputation, and relevance of financial services tomorrow, Horta-Osório told students at Oxfords Saïd Business School on Monday night.Talk like this, in public, is encouraging. In time, it could help reverse the disturbing trend that Lloyds this week identified. But the words still need to be backed up with action. Mission statements and talk of cultural change is a start. Now for the hard part.