Tuesday, 4 October 2011

UBS culture problems

Interesting analysis piece in today's Financial Times by Megan Murphy and Haig Simonian. They argue that leading investment banks are struggling to redefine their identities amid tough market conditions. While the article singles out UBS, also in the frame are Bank of America Merrill Lynch, Morgan Stanley, and Royal Bank of Scotland.

As interim UBS CEO Sergio Ermotti wrote to all his staff last week, "We must now summon our collective strength to demonstrate what UBS stands for." About time too, many UBS employee would say. As Murphy and Simonian note:
UBS insiders say the constant influx of new staff, plus a virtual merry-go-round at the top, had already made it hard to knit together a cohesive culture. The investment bank has reshuffled its executive committee more than 10 times in three years, bringing in senior people from Deutsche Bank and other rivals who frequently brought clashing management styles. Insiders cite a structure where the equities and fixed income divisions are led by four global co-heads – only one of whom worked at the bank before July 2009 – as particularly problematic.
Across the investment banking sector, efforts to find sustainable profit lines now like the US Army's hunt for Saddam Hussein's missing WMD - great prizes promised for those units that find the 'treasure' but no evidence that it actually exists.

So what does UBS (and indeed the other banks) stand for now? It's time for industry leaders to stop blaming markets, regulators, rogue traders for their woes and start telling us where they stand amidst the maelstrom. 

Wednesday, 21 September 2011

Where do we go from Vickers?

After a long summer's lobbying, the final report of the Independent Commission on Banking (the Vickers' Commission) was finally published earlier this month. After digesting the report and its commentary (including the massive governance breech at UBS which nicely demonstrated the timeliness of the debate), the outcomes for the governance and culture agenda appear to be:

  • the proposed ring-fence around banks' retailing operations will entail measuring and managing cultures on both sides of the fence. As Vickers says: 'It is difficult for regulations to work effectively if they are operating against the grain of corporate culture. So, alongside financial restrictions, the governance of a ring-fenced bank should reflect and encourage an appropriate relationship with the rest of the group.' (74) A view endorsed in a Financial Times editorial.
  • the onus of managing corporate culture will fall on banks' management rather than the regulator. As Vickers says: 'While corporate culture cannot be directly regulated, these measures should assist in building a separate, consumer-focused culture in UK retail banking, and a distinctive identity within the ring-fenced bank.' (76) A view partially endorsed in a briefing by the right-wing think tank Adam Smith Institute
  • there is much to play for here still. As Michael Cohrs (member of Bank of England’s Financial Policy Committee) said in a Financial Times roundtable on Vickers: 'The report does talk a lot about culture and the need for cultural change between certain types of banking operations. I think if I were critical of the report the one place would be maybe not enough attention was put on how do you create or how do we create different cultures, the retail culture which is quite different from the wholesale culture.'
In view of this ongoing debate, the 'Governance Beyond the Boardroom' team has brought together a number of researchers and practitioners to support the next stage of project. The project team is now led by Dr Andrew Tucker (Brunel University) with Dr Simon Ashby (Plymouth University) and Prof Ken d'Silva (London South Bank University). A number of banks and relevant organisations have joined the advisory board and committed their time to help the project operationalise the governance culture toolkit framework published here in January. 

The main outputs that we expect to deliver are as follows:
  • A process tool that highlights the essential stages and decisions associated with the implementation of effective governance arrangements.
  • An audit tool, which allows institutions to compare themselves against identified examples of good practice and assess the gaps in their own practice.
  • A suite of recommended metrics (both qualitative and quantitative) that are used to monitor the performance of new or existing governance arrangements. This will include metrics that allow institutions to assess their governance culture.
  • Case studies to illustrate good practice.
  • Face-to-face training sessions and bundled e-learning modules.
If you would like to be part of the ongoing project, we look forward to hearing from you. Please contact andrew.tucker@brunel.ac.uk.

Wednesday, 13 April 2011

The costs of the wrong culture

Intriguing article in last week's FTfm section (the Financial Times's weekly review of the Fund Management Industry) on an unpublished draft report from IBM's Institute for Business Value that states:
"The document, seen by FTfm, claims the industry is 'paid too much for the value it delivers' and that 'destroying value for clients and shareholders is unsustainable'".
The report goes on to warn of large headcount reductions in sell side research, credit rating agencies research, traders, fund of hedge funds, hedge funds, traditional portfolio managers, and financial advisers.

The question is, in an industry that is allegedly singularly motivated by delivering return on investment, how is there so much slack in the system? Beyond any discernible business reason, the fund management industry seems to have a culture that tolerates massive waste, duplication, and value destruction.

According to FTfm, the unpublished IBM report puts a figure of '$1,300bn' on this egregious waste. Getting this culture more aligned with strategy has the potential for huge cost savings and much greater client and shareholder value.

Update: Peter Elston, investment strategist at Aberdeen Asset Management Asia, defends the industry here by arguing that (i) the costs of slack in the system are overstated and (ii) acceptable when compared to the potential privatised benefits of beating the market. 

Tuesday, 12 April 2011

Does Vickers Commission Interim Report change the conversation?

So the Independent Commission on Banking has provided an answer to one of the big questions raised by the financial crisis. We can't stop a repeat but we can mitigate its impact.

Despite the predictable sound and fury around the Interim Report from the ICB, the big banks seem to have won the argument for resisting a break up. The Commission's structural approach is to inject more competition into the high street banking sector, ring-fence retail from investment operations, and make the cost of capital more realistic.

Intriguingly, these changes may have significant effects on banks' culture although this is not explicitly mentioned by Vickers.

  • Greater high street competition will drive transparency on fees, simplicity in products, and improved customer service
  • Ring-fencing the retail operations, even if some cross-subsidisation remains, will help the high street side push back against the higher risk-takers from the investment side
  • More market-rate capital will undermine the 'fingers-in-the-till' mentality of the investment side using the retail side as a source of cheap credit
Unless George Osborne perpetrates an even larger Government U-turn than tuition fees, most of the Vickers recommendations will ultimately change the governance culture of the banking sector. Whether this is for the better depends on the small print, as ever. However, Vickers seems like the tentative beginnings of a new conversation for UK Banking. Should we tell the cheering bankers that they aren't out of the woods yet?

Thursday, 10 March 2011

McKinsey's culture in question

An interesting column in today's Financial Times by John Gapper. He argues that the charging of the ex-CEO Rajat Gupta with insider trading is a severe strain on the firm's perceived governance culture. Gapper makes the perceptive point that McKinsey that:

It is hard to believe that trading on price-sensitive inside information from clients is rife inside the puritan, strait-laced firm – if evidence of that emerged, it would soon collapse, as Arthur Andersen did after Enron. But the accumulation and sharing of privileged knowledge is integral to how it works and it cannot afford its corporate and government clients to pull the shutters down.

This goes to the heart of McKinsey business model and is another useful piece of evidence in establishing the link between corporate culture and strategy. It is also an interesting reflection on a weakness of the McKinsey 7S model - that Shared Values (at the heart of the model) may well not be shared with your key client base. I wonder what their own consultants would advise?

Wednesday, 9 March 2011

Is the FSA going soft on governance culture?

Interesting Clare Distinguished Lecture in Economics and Public Policy speech recently by Lord Adair Turner, Chairman of the FSA, on whether the current reforms of the financial services sector are going far enough. Short answer is No - because the current fixes patch up the existing system without reforming it sufficient to prevent another crisis.

As rightly Lord Turner points out:
An appropriately radical response to the financial crisis requires that we take into account explanations of financial market imperfection and instability which go beyond the identification of specific information asymmetries or incentive problems.

However, having rightly pointed to broader fixes that include learnings from behavioural analysis, insuperable information asymmetries (a la Joseph Stiglitz), and the inherent irreducibility of some uncertainty (a la Frank Knight), Lord Turner simply suggests regulators should retain a discretionary macro-prudential capacity to intervene when they smell danger:
As a result, fixing poor incentives - such as those created by 'too big to fail' banks or by perversely designed bonus arrangements - while a necessary part of the regulatory response, cannot be sufficient. Our policy response needs also to include policies which focus on the complex dynamics of the whole system, above all through higher equity capital requirements, and macro-prudential policies which can arise even in a system where individual agents' incentives were always well designed.
Surely the recent crisis has demonstrated the FSA's shortcomings in acting as an all-seeing deus ex machina? Instead, they should actively research micro-prudential tools with which to regularise behaviour of individual agents. Something with which this group has made some headway. We await Lord Turner's call...

Wednesday, 19 January 2011

The Good and the Bad of Governance Beyond Boardroom

Running counter to the current commentary on the financial services sector, a big cheer to Goldman Sachs and a big raspberry to Barclays for today's reports.

On the upside, it appears that Goldman's new governance culture (see previous post) does have some teeth. It is reported today that Kevin Connors, co-head of global forex sales in G10 currencies, was fired last week for breaking internal compliance rules. However, and here the cheers are deserved, he had not acted illegally nor harmed clients. So undermining the firm's culture and reputation, even if no external rules have been broken, is now a sackable offence. I wonder if other financial services firms will follow suit...

On the downside, Barclays was fined £7.7m by the FSA for misselling Aviva funds. The reaction from IFAs has been a little predictable. However, this fine comes on top of having to refund £60m to complainants. This is a significant governance situation and evidence of a sales culture misaligned to corporate strategy. Whether senior management announces a recovery programme in the next few days will be a sign of how seriously they are taking their governance culture mistakes.