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Banking Reforms: Don't Get Your Hopes Up

20/06/2013 13:42 BST | Updated 20/08/2013 10:12 BST

It's hard to get excited about the recently-issued report from the Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards. It's good that the issue is being looked at but I'm sceptical that the Commission's proposals will change banking culture for the better.

The report has been welcomed by all political parties. Of course it has. Politicians absolutely have to be seen to be kicking bankers as enthusiastically as the rest of us.

However, it is very, very, very hard to take any politician seriously when it comes to banking reform. We all agree that profound banking reform is required, but I very much doubt that politicians have the will and the ability to enact such reform.

My first concern is that it's hard to believe that politicians will finally bite the hand that feeds them. Not only is banking a critical component of the British economy, generating over £80 billion each year, but banks are huge contributors to political parties.

A report by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism found that over half of the donations made to the Conservative Party since the last general election, have come from individuals and businesses working in finance.

Pair this with another study that reports that The City spends more on political lobbying than any other industry in the UK, and the prospects for reform don't look good. As an example, just look at the UK government's resistance to the proposed European Union financial transaction tax. It doesn't leave you with a warm feeling that meaningful change is on its way.

And that brings me on to my second concern - the ability of politicians to take on the banking industry.

To illustrate this inability, let's focus on two headline-grabbing points from the Commission's report - that a banker's reckless disregard of responsibilities should be made a criminal offence, and that more women are needed on the trading floors.

Regulators have always wanted management to be responsible - this isn't a sudden profound revelation for them. Management responsibility was a cornerstone of the regulations laid out by the now-abolished FSA, and these rules were in place when Northern Rock collapsed and when HBOS was sold to Lloyds.

To criminalise reckless behaviour, the new law would have to define it. Currently that term is too ambiguous. How can we differentiate between an unfortunate business decision that doesn't pay off, and reckless behaviour?

Without such clarity, panels of lawyers will argue over what constitutes reckless behaviour for months; a lawyer's wet dream, as their fees only increase. Until the regulators are able to define this explicitly, and have the number and quality of staff to identify such malpractice and act on it, no banker will ever serve jail time.

As for the second suggestion, that employing more female traders could reduce risk, you're kidding me, right? It's a sexist prejudice, one that I now call the Dalai Lama theory after his recent comments in which he defined women as sensitive and compassionate, implying that it's the men that are ambitious and risk-takers.

Ambition and ruthlessness are not gendered traits. They can be found as much in women as they can in men. It is the culture of banking that is the issue, not the demographics of its trading floors.

I am fully aware of the challenges for women in banking - I worked in banking for over a decade so I've experienced its prejudices first-hand. However female traders are as tough as their male counterparts. They have to be.

A trading floor is, rather perversely, one of the most meritocratic places on earth. Bankers don't care if you are a white heterosexual male or a disabled black lesbian. If you can make them profits, they'll wheel you up to a dealer-board and give you a credit line.

I'm not saying banking doesn't have gender issues - clearly it has, as numerous sex discrimination cases can attest. But institutionalised sexism is a separate issue and must be treated as such. It is, frankly, folly to say that risk-taking in a bank can be addressed simply by firing some men and filling their places with women.

It is the competitive, high-pressure, profit-at all-costs culture that is the problem. All that matters to a banker - male or female - is profit.

The cornerstone to any genuine banking reform has to be an overhaul of the regulatory environment. Responsibility for the banks may ultimately lay with its senior management but do you think they really care? The evidence over the past few years suggests otherwise - it's take the money and run. You want bankers to change? You've got to make them.