We need to weed out the 'jerks' and regain trust

The days when business was conducted on trust and a handshake are long gone. Now the City is full of sharp operators, all treading a fine line between being a bit dodgy, and outright illegality.

I'm quoted in the FT letters page today. That's enough to make me happy in itself, but even better is the subject of the letter - something that people are finally beginning to realise is the key to everything trust.

An old banking hand told me last night that when he started out in banking (he is long retired now, so I'm talking many years pre Big Bang) one of his bosses took him aside and wrote out a list of names. The thing the names had in common? They were people not to be trusted and not to be dealt with.

My friend still has this list. He won't tell me who's on it, but he says that in the days when the City really relied on trust, it was utterly invaluable (and 100% accurate, as it turned out). Today's letter makes the same point.

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"When I joined the City 40 years ago you would only deal with [three] or for people who trusted each other", says Roderick Balfour. That made the difference, and "until we worry more about breaching trust rather than imperfect rules the financial market place will remain a pariah in the public mind, with dire long term consequences for the efficiency of capital".

But of course, all this it isn't just about the City itself. It's about all our institutions. As time goes by we see that almost nothing goes uninterfered with, and that almost nothing is dealt with honestly.

The front page of the FT makes the point. There's Diamond threatening to "reveal potentially embarrassing details of Barclays' dealings with regulators." There's Glencore suing Louis Dreyfus Commodities for "market manipulation". And there is GSK agreeing to pay $3bn to settle charges of "selective use of data from clinical trials in its promotion of drugs beyond their authorised uses".

The point, perhaps, comes down not just to the letter of the law, but to the spirit and the letter of the law. As Rachel Sylvester points out in the Times today, it is increasingly clear (to those who were ever in doubt) that regulation of any industry is never enough.

Empire builders in the civil service might like to put it about that the more regulation we have the better, but the truth is that we can only trust an industry if its regulation is met with some kind of decency. "The difference between tax avoidance and evasion is just the small but significant step" from being a bit iffy to being a criminal.

The same goes for manipulating Libor, persuading solvent companies to buy interest swaps that will make them insolvent (and allow you to foreclose on their assets), and making charges on everything from mortgages to unit trust purchases so opaque that only the provider can win.

There is a line between immoral and illegal. All these things hover around this line and it is but a small step from one to the other. And once the general public know just how close our leaders political financial and corporate work to the line and just how often they slip across it, all trust is gone. That matters: without it, economies don't work.

So can we get it back? Maybe. Tett picks up the point with reference to IBM. Sixteen years ago the brand was so utterly untrusted that it suffered from what she refers to as "negative branding", in that its computers sold better in a plain white box than in some branded with the IBM name. Today it is the "world's second highest rated brand."

And the key to making that move? History tells us, says Tett, that it comes down to two things. First, companies or industries need to display a sense of apology or penance. And second, they need to "demonstrate a new sense of purpose."

For banks (and, I also think, many of the world's big companies with their misguided devotion to short term shareholder value) that means saying sorry and then doing penance in the form of resignations and pay cuts (see how Bob listens to Gillian?). Then the banks need to "redefine why they exist."

That means presenting themselves as proper stewards of the nation's capital and being much more transparent - for starters, at least. They might also, as a letter in the Times has it, take a leaf out of the hospital sector's book and give themselves ethics committees where the inventors of new products for sale have to convince a group of relatively upstanding managers that their work will be of benefit to clients as well as to employees. That might have stopped the business of selling interest rate swaps to solvent small businesses in its tracks.

Last year in an interview with the Times Bob Diamond claimed that he had instituted a "no jerks" policy at Barclays and encouraged those who he felt fell into that category (people who "can't behave with their colleagues") to find jobs elsewhere. How did he figure out who was a jerk and who was not? "You know what a jerk is when you see it."

Clearly, self-knowledge isn't his thing. But as Rachel Sylvester says, he was on to something with the idea. If we could find a way to cut down on the real jerks (it is going well so far.) we might be able to move on.

In the meantime, Twitter's @shinsei1967 has an idea. He notes that the Serious Fraud Office works on a budget of only £36m a year. "Peanuts." If George Osborne upped that to £100m immediately and told them to step things up a bit, it might at least make people think twice before they crossed the honesty line.

Merryn Somerset Webb

Merryn Somerset Webb started her career in Tokyo at public broadcaster NHK before becoming a Japanese equity broker at what was then Warburgs. She went on to work at SBC and UBS without moving from her desk in Kamiyacho (it was the age of mergers).

After five years in Japan she returned to work in the UK at Paribas. This soon became BNP Paribas. Again, no desk move was required. On leaving the City, Merryn helped The Week magazine with its City pages before becoming the launch editor of MoneyWeek in 2000 and taking on columns first in the Sunday Times and then in 2009 in the Financial Times

Twenty years on, MoneyWeek is the best-selling financial magazine in the UK. Merryn was its Editor in Chief until 2022. She is now a senior columnist at Bloomberg and host of the Merryn Talks Money podcast -  but still writes for Moneyweek monthly. 

Merryn is also is a non executive director of two investment trusts – BlackRock Throgmorton, and the Murray Income Investment Trust.