Wednesday, 10 April 2013

The least the Great Bank Robbers can do is hand back their loot

A crowd screaming for revenge is never a pretty sight, whether it is on the streets of some foreign city or the pages of the British press.

Nevertheless, it seems unfair that those convicted of the £2.6 million Great Train Robbery in 1963 copped 30 years in jail, while those responsible for the trillion pound Great Bank Robbery of 2008 remain not just at large but enjoying honours and plutocratic lifestyles derived from their entirely illusory “success”.

Running a bank hardly seems the most challenging job in the world, provided one applies a bit of common sense. Such as only lending money to individuals and companies who stand a sporting chance of being able to pay it back, even if the economy takes a turn for the worse.

In this context, it helps to be experienced enough to know that any politician who claims to have abolished boom and bust is utterly delusional.

As that damning Parliamentary report observed last week, Halifax Bank of Scotland was not a complicated business brought down by too-clever-by-half investment bankers or felled as collateral damage from the global financial collapse. It would have gone bust anyway because those in charge took irresponsible risks.

Since all of us are going to be paying for this mess through our taxes for years to come, it does not seem entirely equitable that one of the individuals chiefly responsible should be allowed to walk away with a cool £25 million in his pension fund, having retired at the implausibly early age of 50 a couple of years before the wheels fell off.

Sir, sorry Mr, James Crosby

The cult of comparative youth gives us chief executives at 40 who cannot possibly be expected to hold such high pressure jobs for more than a decade. And Prime Ministers of a similar age who have never held any real job outside politics and reach the top after less than ten years in Parliament.

With the utmost respect, how can anyone without the experience of things going wrong the last time around be expected to make the right decisions to prevent it happening again?

One of my first assignments as a junior PR executive was the flotation of a computer leasing company. I met huge scepticism from cynical old hacks who explained to me why this sort of business was doomed to go bust. I was well equipped with a sheaf of counter-arguments on why it was all going to be different this time around.

And guess what? It wasn’t.

All the fuss about corporate governance in recent years has completely failed to stop top executive pay being ratcheted up to such an extent that it has completely lost touch not only with the rewards available to the average worker, but with reality itself. But it has ensured the compulsory retirement of experienced non-executive directors on the grounds that they have been on boards too long to be “independent”.

Instead of fussing about boardroom diversity, the focus should be on making more room towards the top for those with experience, scepticism and an aversion to greed. At the very least these older folk could play the role of the slave in Roman triumphs, whispering reminders of their mortality in the ears of the people in charge.

I will admit that it may not work. I spent much of the weekend trying to instruct my three-year-old on how to operate his electric train set. As usual, my warnings were dismissed with the confident assertion that “The thing is, Daddy, I know all about trains”. A spectacular crash duly ensued.

But at least when the Parliamentary report on the next British corporate train wreck comes to be written, there will be a few more greybeards around to utter the words “I told you so”.

As for those who baled out at 50 from a high-flying business that then plunged spectacularly to earth, the only honourable course is surely to hand back the loot. As an elderly striver myself, I can assure you that you are not too old to make a fresh start, ideally in an area more suited to your talents.

I haven’t seen a whelk stall in years so a highly suitable gap in the market clearly exists.

Originally NOT published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne, because it was due to appear on Tuesday 9 April and wasn't about Margaret Thatcher.

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