Anthony Hilton: Why bankers still don't 'get it'

A year ago this column bewailed the fact that the banks 'did not get it' and had no feeling for the depth of public anger caused by their bonuses.

A year later, in spite of the belief expressed by Barclays' chief Bob Diamond that we should 'move on', they still don't get it.

The challenge this poses for the PR and marketing people whose job it is to represent the banks was the subject of a breakfast seminar this week under the banner of the Financial Services Club. As a correspondent who has failed to move on, my contribution was to list the following questions, which I think still have to be answered.

How profitable are the banks? Bankers say they only pay bonuses to people who earn them big profits. But Andrew Haldane, the director for financial stability at the Bank of England, proved last year that the banks' ability to borrow funds cheaply because governments will not let them go bust is an implicit subsidy that accounts for all of their profit.

How do they make profits? Conventional borrowing and lending is low margin; hence the move to create and trade exotic products. But one person's profit is another person's loss. To be consistently profitable they need an edge. Their edge is their size relative to the market. Critics say it is market abuse - they make money because the odds are stacked in their favour.

Are they talented? You could take 1,000 of the best Oxbridge graduates but no amount of training would turn them into a Tiger Woods or a Robbie Williams - people with unique talents. But Goldman and the others are successful at turning them into bankers - which suggests such people are made, not born. In American investor Warren Buffett's words: 'Don't confuse the value of the person with the value of the seat they sit in.'

Do bankers create wealth? If finance becomes an end in itself, it skims off wealth from other people's activities. Long-term studies in the US suggest that as the financial sector has grown, the underlying growth rate of the whole economy has slowed.

Is being a world leader in toxic financial products worth the economic and social cost? I leave you to judge.

Anthony Hilton is City commentator on London's Evening Standard.

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