Categories: Credit Crunch / Trust and reputations / Zurich

8 November 2008


If waiters can say sorry, why can’t bankers?

It’s Saturday morning. I’m sitting in the Movenpick drinking coffee. I’ve been shopping in the Bahnhofstrasse. Beneath my feet is one of the biggest hordes of gold bullion in the world. Out of the window I observe the quiet orderliness of Zurich’s Paradeplatz, the hub of Swiss banking. It takes the waiter to bring my attention inside. He’s charged me for a “Gipfeli” I didn’t order. He apologies. Why, it occurred to me then, have the world’s bankers not said sorry for the credit crunch and their part in creating the mess we’re in?

When the waiter comes back to close the bill, it’s my time to apologise. I want another coffee. I need time to read Martin Waller’s City Diary in today’s Times. There I read:

“There is a mood abroad, put forward by the banks’ spinners and spokesweasels, that the demigods who have almost destroyed the banking system through their greed, arrogance and hubris have suffered enough. Time to lay off, be a bit kinder, their share options worthless, broken men, etc, etc…”

He wants to go on kicking the bankers who first lost trust in each other and then lost our trust as a result. So do I. Banking is too important an industry for it and trust to part company.

To begin to restore their reputations, the bankers must acknowledge their errors. They have to give the public an apology. They need to come clean. Otherwise, all their talk of corporate responsibility, good governance, integrity and pubic engagement will fall on mocking ears.

They need to say:

Dear Scruffy Masses,

We should have called time on over-exuberant lending earlier. We were complacent with regards to that. We dazzled ourselves.

We mismanaged the creation of complicated financial instruments that gave us toxic debt.

We got our risk management wrong.

We should have been more fearful.

We failed at our day job.

We accept responsibility for our part in the unfolding recession.

Here is what we are going to do to put things right (fill in as suits circumstances in any given country’s market).

Yours faithfully,
The Banking Industry

At the same time, they should tell some home truths about their business. After all, banking accounts for around 30% of the UK and U.S. economies. London’s wealth is finance industry-led. As is Frankfurt’s, Zurich’s and New York’s.

World financial markets are aggressive beasts. Wishful thinking will not change that fact. Hence, over-regulation is as big a danger as lax regulation. So, if we get the balance wrong we are going to suffer more in the future than we are right now.

Bankers can say they have managed their risks well more often than not going back more than 100 years. That’s why until recently they were trusted. In countries such as the UK and Switzerland fantastic wealth has been generated. This has boosted their economies as other sectors such as manufacturing have declined.

Now is not the time to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

3 responses to “If waiters can say sorry, why can’t bankers?”

  1. Alan Brighty says:

    They wont say sorry because their legal advisers have already pointed out that the moment they do the Scruffy Masses accompanied by their own legal eagles will be on their doorsteps demanding compensation for losing half their pension savings.

  2. Paul Seaman says:

    Dear Alan,

    My reply can be read in “lunch with a guru’.

  3. RobGallo says:

    Agree with the spirit of your post. But an apology, today, won’t cut it. The issues that we face with banking are much more systemic. The entire collective corporate cultures of the banking sector needs to change – we, the general public, want to see evidence of a significant change occurring from within. Which, as anyone who has worked in corporate change management knows, will take years…

    Agree also with Alan’s comment, that the main reason that Banks are not apologising in unambiguous terms is that the issues appears to managed as a commercial and PR crisis (in other words, the lawyers and PR advisors are earning their keep here).

    I know it sounds bland, but more leadership is required by new types of business people. Perhaps the redundancies we are seeing have a silver lining – for banking leaders of the future will need to be cut from a different cloth.