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Commission considers good and bad of British banking

The new Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby speaks to the congregation during his first service at Canterbury Cathedral in southern Englan
The new Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby speaks to the congregation during his first service at Canterbury Cathedral in southern Englan

By Matt Scuffham

LONDON (Reuters) - The Archbishop of Canterbury has spent the run up to Easter contemplating the ethics of the trading floor and ways to curb greed in the City of London.

Justin Welby, the spiritual leader of 80 million Anglicans, is one of an influential committee of British lawmakers looking at how to change the culture of an industry laid low by price manipulation, mis-selling and fraud.

Measures to improve competition and to rein in risk-taking and proprietary trading are all being considered.

"We've learnt of various scandals that show the problem to be even greater than we were fully aware of," said commission member Nigel Lawson, who was Britain's finance minister in Margaret Thatcher's cabinet in the 1980s.

Britain's current Finance Minister George Osborne set up the cross-party Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards last year to look at ethics in banking after Barclays , one of the oldest names in British banking, was fined $450 million over the manipulation of global interest rate benchmarks.

Osborne later gave the commission additional powers to review his banking reform law, which is meant to help shield taxpayers from future bank failures by ringfencing lenders' retail operations from riskier investment banking activities.

Osborne adopted a commission proposal to "electrify" the ringfence with a threat to break up banks if they fail to adequately protect depositors and taxpayers from investment banking risk-taking.

Flexing its independence, the commission has said Osborne needs to go further by raising leverage standards and forcing the split of all banks' investment banking and retail arms if the new rules designed to protect taxpayers fail.

The finance minister has shrugged off the recommendations and, in the meantime, the commission is working on its final report, on how to improve the culture of British banking. It is set to be published at the end of May.

Only recommendations that are supported by every member of the commission, made up of nine men, including a former investment banker, and one woman, a former executive with Citigroup , will be put forward, its members told Reuters.

Osborne does not have to implement their proposals but given that he created the commission, at least some of the recommendations will likely be taken up.

"What these guys say is more likely to be listened to. Anything that comes from these guys is going to be stress-tested for politics. I would have thought it slightly increases the likelihood of what they recommend actually coming to pass," said Tim Bale, professor of politics at Queen Mary, University of London.

ANGELS AND MERCENARIES

For commission member John Thurso, a member of the junior government party, the Liberal Democrats, their recommendations must find a way to, "make banking the servant of commerce and industry and a helpful part of growth rather than a bunch of people just making a lot of money on their own without any benefit to anyone else".

After six months of public hearings with former and current bank executives, regulators, central bankers, academics and consumer rights activists, the commission has heard the full gamut of opinion on bankers' role in society.

While Marcel Rohner, the former chief executive of Swiss bank UBS , described some of the traders at his bank as "mercenaries", Eric Daniels, the former chief executive of Britain's biggest retail bank Lloyds , stunned the lawmakers when he insisted that his bank had been "on the side of the angels" when it sold flawed insurance policies on loans and mortgages.

For some, appearing before the commission has been an uncomfortable experience.

"They have a job to do but I think some of the goading of witnesses has been a little unnecessary," said one bank executive who was grilled by lawmakers.

Another banker described his appearance as unpleasant and said he doubted the commission's final report would have much impact because several of the likely proposals, including making it easier for new banks to emerge, had already been set in motion by regulators and the government.

Britain said this week it would cut the capital requirements for start-up banks and halve the amount of time it takes to get a license. The commission said it was a step in the right direction.

Liberal Democrat Susan Kramer, who spent 20 years working as a banker in the United States, believes the type of industry-wide malpractice epitomized by the mis-selling of payment protection insurance (PPI) would not have occurred if there had been real alternatives available to bank customers.

"If you get bad service in a supermarket you can go to other supermarkets or to small local shops. This (banking) has looked to customers like a choice free zone," she said.

The commission has decided against a U.S. style ban on proprietary trading saying such a move was not needed and would be too difficult to enforce.

Despite that, it is recommending that Britain use the threat of capital add-ons or other tools to bear down on any bank that shows signs of proprietary trading, which several commission members have identified as a root cause of cultural failings within banks.

"Ultimately the culture of greed and aggression came from proprietary trading which has no purpose to wider society and is not in the interest of customers," said Mark Garnier, a Conservative lawmaker and former investment banker.

The deregulation of financial services in Britain in the 1980s transformed the culture of British banking from a long-term, customer-focused business epitomized by lengthy lunches in City restaurants to a short-term, transaction-based industry, where lunch was for wimps.

Veronica Hope-Hailey, a professor of management studies at Bath University, said the sector was capable of cultural change but bankers needed to rethink their role in society.

"We have had a lot of apologies, that is great, but I don't hear them recapturing the moral high ground, which is the critical and essential role banks play in the economic development of a society," said Hope-Hailey, who has worked with companies, including banks, on changing their corporate culture.

"We have got to attend to the rehabilitation of the banking sector. Those of us in society have got to be prepared to forgive and move on and the reason for this is that as long as it is portrayed as a deeply venal industry, the only people you will attract into that industry are deeply venal people."

(Editing by Carmel Crimmins and Anna Willard)

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