What remains is bestial

Born in 1966, I was taught as a toddler to recite my name and address and instructed most strictly that, should I ever be lost, I was to repeat this vital information to a policeman or in a bank.  Yes: my mother had such faith in banks. bolstered by her love of “Dad’s Army” and the unflappable Captain Mainwaring, that she considered them a safe haven for her lost child.  In fact, I never did get lost and so we didn’t have to test this faith, but I doubt many mothers nowadays are giving such guidance to their little ones, as the reputation of the bank manager has taken something of a battering in recent months.  Today, Standard Chartered is in the news, defending its position.  I am currently reading a book by Janet Street-Porter, on how to live happily in the modern world, and once she has had a go at magazine editors for airbrushing their models and food companies for stuffing our food with salt and sugar, she turns to banks: “None of us will ever feel we can trust banks and building societies again – we’ve seen them shed staff, merge, dump their identities, sack their directors and beg for government bailouts (which means giving them more of our money).  They’ve stopped providing a service and have become a major irritant.”

I feel torn, as I know plenty of “bankers” in the most general use of the term – i.e. people who work for banks – and they are all delightful, hard-working, trustworthy and generous.  To be fair, the majority of my contacts are in the compliance area rather than in customer-facing or sales roles but still, I see these people during AML training sessions and they generally seem decent enough too, not hogging the biscuits or putting their feet up on the furniture.  However, there is no denying that, for the public at large, “banker” has become a term of derision, to be spat out rather than admired.  Debates rage on consumer forums on how to outwit the banks, how best to spread your risk in case of collapse, who can be trusted and who cannot.  And that’s only at the very lowest level: not for one second do I kid myself that my bank cares two hoots about my measly holdings with them.  But if “big business” is feeling the same way, casting around in vain for somewhere reassuring to put their money, then that is a problem for the banking industry.  During AML training for boards, I often include a session on reputational risk – the dangers of becoming embroiled in a money laundering case.  But perhaps I am old-fashioned: there is only reputational risk if you still have a reputation to lose.  And if you do not, then what is left?  As Cassio laments in Shakespeare’s “Othello”: “Oh, I have lost my reputation! I have lost the immortal part of myself, and what remains is bestial.”

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12 Responses to What remains is bestial

  1. Robert says:

    The Banks need to wake up, because whether they like it or not, reputation is critical and so they can’t ignore the AML risks and the fact that the regular are digging deeper and deeper. If the allegations against Standard Chartered are true, then the impact will hit some developing Countries where they have interest.

    • Hello Robert
      Welcome, and thank you for your comments. You are absolutely right: reputation is so important for banks, especially now that information can be shared so quickly (how long would it have taken for our grandparents to find out about a bank’s alleged misdoings in New York?) and people can switch their business so easily (again, our grandparents would never have dreamt of banking anywhere except with the bank closest to home).
      Best wishes from Susan

  2. Paul Coleman says:

    In Governance and Risk we talk a lot about the “Tone at the Top.”
    I think you are absolutely right, typical Compliance managers are very much attuned to their responsibilities and how that contributes to the fabric of the banking profession and indeed society. However there is a signficant number of people in banking who are sales driven and complain that compliance gets in the way of doing business. Hence referring to Compliance as the proverbial “profit prevention department”

    At the highest level in the organisation the executive must direct that balance between business growth and compliance. All it needs is that “tone” to suggest that Compliance is secondary then that fuels those wishing to hear it. Compliance then becomes something to beat rather than something to respect.

    I feel quite sure that all of the bank’s under fire (Standard Chartered Bank, HSBC, etc) had clearly documented policies and procedures but if the executive give the wrong signals they are worth very little.

    Exactly the same as being a role model as a parent, the actions, verbal or otherwise of the executive are seen by the many as the way to go.



    • Hello Paul
      I couldn’t agree more – it’s the old “do as I say, not as I do” argument used, as you say, by parents with their children. And your comment about compliance being something to beat is so true – sad, but true.
      Best wishes from Susan

  3. Robert says:

    Standard Chartered and HSBC cases reminds me of the Enron fraud, where they had excellent Compliance policy on paper, but failed to the implement them, even when their Internal Audit team raised the issue. Will these scandals focus attention on the corporate governance culture of these institutions? Should the Audit Committees take full responsibilities for monitoring these issues? How independent are such committees? One way or the other, something must change.

  4. Graham Thomas says:

    Hi Susan

    What a small world, I was born in 1966 as well but I feel slightly cheated now as I didn’t get the parental lesson in who I could trust with my home address.

    It is very sad to reflect on the current tattered reputation of the banking industry but, in hindsight, the warning signs were there many years ago. One of the reasons I left my “front line” banking career was because of criticism that I was not selling enough loan insurance to my business customers. It didn’t seem to matter that I had the best record in terms of loans not defaulting and it just didn’t sit comfortably with me that one of the key drivers for lending had become whether or not the customer took our “optional” insurance (which, when you read the small print, wasn’t actually of much value in many cases). It therefore didn’t surprise me at all when PPI mis-selling hit the headlines.

    Against the ongoing background of various mis-selling cases, accusations of AML failures, LIBOR rate shenanigans etc, I fear it it is going to be a very long and hard road to restore trust in the banking industry.

    Anyway, I’m glad that your training experiences to date have seen you meeting the better side of the Banking industry.

    Best wishes


    • Hello Graham
      How interesting to hear about your own soul-searching in banking. Although, as I said in the post, the people I meet in banking are generally the loveliest you could want, I still feel a slight sense of shame when I say (admit?) that I work in a banking-related industry – when I used to feel so proud of it. I guess this is how estate agents feel!
      Best wishes from Susan

  5. Graham Thomas says:

    p.s. I forgot to mention the good news that my PC gremlins have sorted themselves out and my viewing of your site is now back to normal.

  6. Excellent news – perhaps they were on skeleton staff inside your PC, with half of them off down watching the Olympics! That certainly seems to be the case with every company that I call these days!

  7. Hi Sue,

    I have always loved your very apposite quotes. Here’s another to add to an issue we both believe is vital.

    “…“The purest treasure mortal times afford, is spotless reputation; that away, men are but gilded loam or painted clay…” Richard II



  8. Dear Rowan
    Another excellent quotation – many thanks for suggesting it. Have you seen this marvellous song from “Horrible Histories” – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gDqUlAJN-ek ?
    Best wishes from Sue

  9. Pingback: Innocent until, etc. | I hate money laundering

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