Thursday, 5 July 2012

Who are these banksters?

About an hour after publishing last week's post, I was listening to the evening news on the way home as the first reports were coming through about the Libor scandal that has now led to Bob Diamond stepping down from Barclays. So not only have the banks been reckless, they've been fraudulent.

At the same time, there were reports of another fraud perpetrated primarily against small businesses: they would only be able to borrow money if they agreed to purchase a complex financial instrument that would 'protect' them against rises in interest rates. But the sting in the tail was that the banks themselves were betting on interest rates actually falling and were making money out of those bets; meanwhile these 'insurance' polices charged hefty premiums to the customers when the rates fell. This has been enough to bankrupt some small and family businesses.

This has all given rise to some new words - 'banksters' came first, though I'm not sure when it first appeared. More recently a verb, 'to be bankered'. But who are the people behind all this, beyond the public faces like Fred Goodwin or Bob Diamond?

One attempt to reveal the hidden world of investment bankers comes in the film Margin Call  starring Kevin Spacey, Jeremy Irons, Demi Moore and others. It's about the 36 hours leading up to the collapse of - effectively - Lehman Brothers in 2008. It's an independent film that's done well at the box office and the Awards. This might be thought surprising, given that it deals with the obscurities of leveraged investments, sub-prime mortgages, derivatives trading . . . and so on.

We see the trading floors and the boardroom, the technicalities and the human stories. We see the traders, the risk managers, the lawyers, the maths whizz-kids, the management, the security staff . . . and one cleaner. There are goodies and baddies, and we get some of the technical stuff explained to us. But the drama is essentially a human drama.

The two bits you may have seen in trailers show Jeremy Irons, playing the chief executive of the bank concerned. In one exerpt he's saying that the imminent collapse will leave the company holding a 'large bucket of excrement'. In the other he's explaining to one of the managers that 'It's just money. It's made up. It's bits of paper with pictures on so we don't have to kill each other to get something to eat.'

The human stories play out amid the financial collapse that's about to engulf the world's markets, and as the endgame starts, it becomes clear that even the good guys have their price. They can all be bought because, if they refuse, the company will sell them down the river. They're all in thrall to money, and to the lifestyle it buys; even those who agonise, who have a conscience about it all, in the end sell their soul to the system.

It's worth seeing - 110 minutes well spent. It doesn't seem to be available on UK-format DVD yet, but it can be watched on any hardware that will play a US-format DVD, it can be streamed online, and it's currently in some independent cinemas.

But it's really important not to end up just feeling bemused, angry, dwarfed or disempowered by it all - what can ordinary people do?

One thing we can do is consider our own banking habits. The banks that run our current accounts, savings and credit cards aren't investment banks (or 'casino banks' as they're being called in some quarters), but most of them engage in investment (or 'casino') banking. That's what lies behind the political discussion about forcing either separation or ring-fencing between the high-street and investment arms of the banks.

There is a growing movement to persuade us to take our money and our custom away from these banks. Move Your Money offers information, advice and assistance to help us move our money to more ethical banks, mutual building societies, credit uninons, or community development finance institutions. As was quoted in an Editorial in The Guardian (talking about pensions), research shows that 'by and large human beings are not very good at this financial stuff' (aside, says the paper's leader writer, from the minority that has the talent for cleaning up) - but we can get good some small parts of it, like more ethical banking.

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