The blasts at bankers as being corrupt are not about to subside. Recent high-profile allegations against some of the largest banks, from charges of interest rate manipulation, to breaking U.S. sanctions on Iran, to vast money-laundering schemes, are just a taste of what is to come. Never before have there been so many investigations by such a multitude of official agencies in the U.S. and abroad of the possible malfeasance of bankers.
Justice must be done. Wrongdoers must be punished. But the constant bank-bashing is unhealthy. It damages moral within the targeted institutions, undermines public trust in our financial system and promotes levels of litigation and a kind of regulatory zeal that, I believe, does more harm than good.
At a time when many important economies are growing at most modest rates, we need a healthy, respected banking system to play a fully effective role. That is hard to accomplish in the present strained environment. Change is urgent and it can be accomplished.
First, there needs to be stronger incentive for bankers to behave. The public prosecutors rant and rave and members of Congress launch tirades, yet at the end of the day each scandal seems to end with settlement pacts that include fines paid by shareholders. Not a single top banking CEO has gone to prison, despite all the wrongdoing that has taken place. Some CEOs have, to be sure, been forced out of their jobs, but almost always with handsome compensation. Public perceptions that justice is not really being done have merit.
Second, the boards of directors of some of the largest banks need to bite the bullet and introduce far-reaching cultural change in their institutions. A recent report by leaders of finance in the Group of Thirty provides an excellent roadmap for such change. Moreover, gradually, a number of prominent banking leaders have come to accept that phasing out extraordinary compensation for top executives, ending lucrative rewards to traders for high-investment risk-taking and lowering quarterly earnings expectations are pivotal to the long-term health and reputation of their institutions. Very few banking leaders, however, have yet to fully understand that in today's hyperinterconnected digital age and its 24/7 news cycle, the reputational damage done by responding slowly, partially and too defensively to allegations of serious wrongdoing can be exceptionally costly. Reputational risk considerations need to be part of the cultural change that most major banks need to pursue.
Third, national bank regulatory authorities need to come together to set priorities and clarify rules. They need to drive for simpler regulation that everyone can understand. The financial crisis of 2008 spawned an avalanche of new, complex rules and regulations at the international and national levels that have created a great deal of confusion and forced banks to hire armies of compliance lawyers. While much of the regulation is warranted and may well make our financial services system safer, there is inconsistency between national jurisdictions which complicates compliance for multinational banks. There is also unquestionably some excess. At a minimum, bankers have a right to clarity regarding the rules of the game.
Finally, I believe much of the malfeasance that abounds in international banking relates to acts of corruption by foreign government officials and politicians, as well as criminal and terrorist organizations. The scale of money laundering through the financial system runs into hundreds of billions of dollars each year. Money-laundering schemes are sophisticated and often challenge and undermine controls at major banks. Yet, there is greater consensus now among governments as to what needs to be done than ever before, which was underscored at the last summit of the Group of 20 most powerful nations. They know offshore banking centers that aid money launderers need to be closed. They know that "know your customer" rules and regulations are not being sufficiently enforced in many banking jurisdictions and they know that actions to confiscate "stolen" assets deposited in leading banks are too rarely being taken. It is time for governments to act in this crucial area.
Action indeed in each of these areas is urgent. At stake are the credibility and the strength of our international banking system.
Frank Vogl is the author of "Waging War on Corruption - Inside the Movement Fighting the Abuse of Power" and president of Vogl Communications Inc., a consulting service.