The banks and the other institutions of high finance should be taken over and run as public utilities, not profiteers. The top bankers should be sacked and replaced by accountable officials on ordinary wages.
The new scandal about HSBC which blew on 9 February confirms that conclusion.
At first sight, the bankers got off easily from the crisis in 2008. Their get-rich-quick gambits sent the whole economy into slump; but the British government laid out £1100 billion in cash, loans, and guarantees to stop Britain’s big banks going bust, and other governments did similar.
Some banks were nationalised, but with the same sort of people as before in charge, and a mandate to make profits as fast as they could and get themselves privatised again. A few top bankers had to resign, but comfortably: Fred Goodwin of RBS went with a £700,000-a-year pension, now reduced to £340,000-a-year after he took out a £2.7 million tax-free lump sum. A few regulations have been introduced, but nothing scary.
There have been some rows about bonuses, but the banks found ways round them. The banks continue to operate a pile of financial assets which amount to doubled, trebled, and quintupled claims on most of the economy's small-by-comparison physical assets.
According to Bank of England governor Mark Carney, by the end of 2012 the banks' total assets amounted to four times Britain's annual economic output of about £2 trillion. The material “net capital stock” of the UK is about £3.2 trillion — £1.2 trillion houses and other household assets, £2 trillion fixed assets of corporations and government (£1.2 trillion buildings and structures, £0.1 trillion transport equipment, and £0.5 trillion machinery and equipment).
Put it another way: the banks could buy all the machinery and equipment in Britain 16 times over.
But the ground is shifting under the feet of Giant Finance. Widespread resentment and discredit continues to spill over into one scandal after another.
In the latest, the Guardian has reported on “a huge cache of leaked secret bank account files”, leaked by an HSBC employee in 2007.
These “revealed that HSBC’s Swiss banking arm helped wealthy customers conceal millions of dollars of assets, doled out bundles of untraceable cash and advised clients on how to circumvent domestic tax authorities”.
HSBC's response is essentially that everyone was doing it, and they've cleaned up since: “the compliance culture... in HSBC’s Swiss private bank, as well as the industry in general, [was] significantly lower than today”.
Similar scandals have broken again and again since 2009. Several big banks, mostly American but also RBS, have paid billions in fines to settle charges of mis-selling mortgage-backed securities and abusive methods to evict people falling behind on payments.
Banks have been fined for rigging the interest rate at which banks lend to each other short-term, a rate used as a yardstick for masses of financial transaction.
They have been fined, too, for rigging the rates at which different currencies are exchanged; for evading sanctions against Iran and other countries; for money-laundering; for rigging electricity markets; for manipulating the price of gold; and other misdeeds.
British banks have paid billions for selling “payment protection insurance”, mostly to people who wouldn't be able to claim on the insurance policies they were sold.
Over the five years 2009-13, one researcher has found, just 15 big global banks had to pay or set aside £173 billion for fines or settling claims for misbehaviour. That includes £36 billion from just four British banks, HSBC, RBS, Barclays and Lloyds.
Thirty-six billion! That's the equivalent of £600 for every child, woman, and man in the UK. The bankers think they can go on paying the fines but covering them with new profits from new financial trickery.
But more and more people see, as the conservative Financial Times journalist Martin Wolf puts it: “Banks, as presently constituted and managed, cannot be trusted to perform any publicly important function, against the perceived interests of their staff [meaning their top bosses, not the routine staff].
“Today’s banks represent the incarnation of profit-seeking behaviour taken to its logical limits, in which the only question asked by senior staff is not what is their duty or their responsibility, but what can they get away with”. (2 July 2012). Expropriate the banks!