The ease with which the Libor scandal has brought down the towering figure of Bob Diamond, master of the universe and investment banker extraordinaire, is truly momentous. It reveals how small cracks in corporate structures can turn into gaping chasms that engulf whole management teams. For those that haven’t been following the scandal, the gist of it is that traders have been caught submitting inaccurate figures to manipulate the Libor rate – an index which tries to reflect the average rate that banks can borrow on the 'interbank market' (aka. from each other) – for various dubious schemes.
Libor relies on banks submitting honest figures to the British Bankers Association (BBA), the organisation that calculates the index. Interestingly enough, I was at a debate a few weeks ago on the topic of financial sector corruption, which pitted investigative journalists Ian Fraser and Nick Kochan against a representative of the British Bankers Association. Kochan and Fraser argued that London was a hotbed for corruption and dirty money. The BBA representative didn't agree, arguing that greed and corruption ends in the City, rather than starting in it. Needless to say, the conversation probably would have been somewhat awkward for him if it had been scheduled for this week instead.
Time for a true activist hedge fund
In the wake of the Libor scandal it appears the government might indeed hold some type of enquiry, but I’m skeptical of how deep it will go. If regulators, auditors and even journalists have limited will to uncover fraud, perhaps we need some new approaches. I noticed the other day that Barclay’s share price plummeted over 15% on the news of the Libor scandal. That’s a pretty big drop. If someone had shorted (bet against) Barclays shares, they would have done well. It’s naturally occurred to me then, that perhaps one solution is to set up a hedge fund, trained to sniff out financial fraud, expose it, profit from the resultant scandal, and then steer the money back into further financial activism.
The Investment thesis Part 1: The public scandals are just the tip of the iceberg
The Libor scandal offers fresh insights into financial skulduggery, but it’s always hard to tell whether these instances of financial crime, market manipulation and corruption are once-off anomalies or endemic, widespread problems. For one thing, financial crime is often incredibly difficult to detect, and very hard to prove. The occasional scandals tend to be the most sensational cases, but most corruption probably isn’t overt and outrageous. It could be subtle and even subconscious. Earlier this week The Telegraph published the statement of an insider who claims to have known about the Libor rigging. It echoes some of the points I made in a previous post about the problems whistleblowers face: In an environment where dubious behaviour gets normalised by an overall culture of acquiescence, it’s easy to go along with it. Collective inaction can be as strong a form of corruption as the individual actions they quietly ignore.
The first part of my argument is that there are criminogenic structures within financial organisations. I’m not in the camp that says that rampant greed is the only underlying value in finance, and I strongly believe that people within the sector are motivated by a wide range of factors (as will be discussed in a later post). I would argue though, that financial professionals are often working within structures which can amplify those parts of human behaviour we call ‘greed’. Bonuses are often cited for the damaging incentive effects they can have, promoting ‘get-rich-quick’ expectations, but there are many structures within finance that have criminogenic potential. For example, take job promotion systems in which upward mobility is based on the ability to hit short-term targets. This, over time at least, could (statistically) favour those who are prepared to be 'morally flexible', those who are most prepared (and skilled enough) to bend the rules to meet targets, and those who are prepared to cover up misdemeanors of juniors under them. If middle and higher management gets populated by individuals who view such ‘flexible’ and ‘creative’ behaviour as comparatively normal, the implications for corporate culture lower down the ranks are severe.
The second part of the argument though, is that there is a lack of policing mechanisms to counteract or de-emphasise the short-term greed-enhancing factors in the system. Many systems in the world have crimogenic potential, but that is often dampened and contained through formal policing (e.g. official regulation and legal systems), and informal policing via systems of social disapproval and shunning for bad behaviour. Both of these appear to be somewhat deficient in the financial sector though. Regulators appear muzzled by a serious lack of political will to prosecute financial crime, which means fear of prosecution is limited. As for informal policing, many argue that the culture of finance actively encourages dubious ‘Gordon Gekko’ style behavior. Even if you (like myself) disagree with that stereotype, it’s hard to argue that the internal culture of banks would excel at preventing bad behaviour.
Investment thesis 2: The rest of the iceberg can be successfully uncovered, and exploited
It wouldn’t be easy though. We’d need a unique combination of skills, a motley crack team of radical crime-fighters. For example, we’d have to hire:
- Ex-FSA & SEC employees, skilled at the ins and outs of regulation and the loopholes
- Ex-traders (and especially rogue traders), skilled at understanding the operations of various financial professionals
- Criminologists, with deep understanding of criminal structures and how they work
- Ex-bank IT staff and back office staff, who know the nuances of bank IT systems
- Activists/Campaigners, passionate about mobilising networks of people and raising awareness
- Hackers, for occasional… um… unorthodox information retrieval.
- Ex-FBI agents and Mi6 operatives with advanced analysis and infiltration skills
- Forensic audit experts, and big data experts, to spot anomalies among numbers
- DJs: To provide atmospheric background tracks in the office
Now that I come to think of it, such a fund would have obvious crossover with my Financial Wikileaks concept – perhaps the professionals at the fund could be the ones processing leaks that get steered to the site…
Watchdog Capital: Bloodhound Fund No.1
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