OPINION: Financial Services Can Learn From Lego

Shanny Basar

Whenever I visit my nephews I buy Star Wars Lego because it is guaranteed to make them happy. It would be nice if I had the same trust in financial services.

When I buy a Lego set I am happy to pay more, because I know I will get what is on the box. The instructions are really easy to follow and if you go wrong the pieces don’t fit together properly . It is a shame that consumers don’t have the same level of trust in financial services.

One of the reasons is that we are approaching the tenth anniversary of the financial crisis and yet the industry is only just implementing new codes of conduct. It is hard to think of another industry which could perform so catastrophically and take as much time to make amends.

It was back in August 2007 when the debt-laden global economy began to creak as BNP Paribas suspended withdrawals from three funds. The following year the economy came close to collapse when Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy. This led to a host of new regulations but misconduct has continued to emerge. For example, rigging of Libor interest rates in the institutional market and mis-selling to customers in the retail market have resulted in billions of dollars of fines.

Mark Carney, Financial Stability Board

Mark Carney, Bank of England

In 2015 Mark Carney, governor of the Bank of England, said markets generate prosperity but can be prone to excess and abuse if left unattended. He said: “That is particularly so in financial markets, where means and ends too easily become conflated. Value becomes abstract and relative. And the pull of the crowd can overwhelm the integrity of the individual.”

As a result markets need to retain the consent of society, and have ‘a social licence’, to be allowed to operate, innovate and grow but scandals such as the fixing of interest rates and the rigging of foreign exchange have called that social licence into question.

This month Sarah John, head of sterling markets division at the Bank of England, said in a speech that the industry still needs to redefine the social licence for financial markets by putting appropriate infrastructures in place.

“By infrastructures I don’t just mean physical infrastructures such as trading venues and settlement systems. I also mean ‘social’ infrastructures such as standards of market practice and codes of conduct,” she said. “And once embedded, these infrastructures need to be constantly monitored, and evolve to keep pace with underlying markets and social expectations.”

Some progress has been made. Three years ago UK regulators launched the Fair and Effective Markets Review of fixed income, currency, and commodity markets and the creation of a new standards board and the publication of new codes of conduct for  both global foreign exchange and UK money markets. John added: “They can be thought of as one form of licence to manoeuvre through constantly evolving financial markets, including defining the red, amber and green signals that market participants must be aware of when operating in them.”

However, she also acknowledged that voluntary codes of practice for these markets are not new. “Market conduct in a number of typically lightly regulated over-the-counter markets was previously covered by guidance set out in voluntary market codes of good practice,” added John.

In March 2016 the Senior Managers and Certification Regime was implemented by UK Financial Conduct Authority and Prudential Regulation Authority to increase individual accountability within the banking sector. One year on, the FCA said it has seen firms making strong progress in taking their responsibilities more seriously but also that some firms appear to be sharing responsibility amongst some staff at different levels of management to obscure who is genuinely responsible for decisions.

The FCA said: “But we recognise culture change takes time and there is still more to do. So we will continue to keep a watchful eye on the progress that firms are making.”

Lego has recovered from nearly going bankrupt in 2003 but it remains to be seen whether financial services is doing  too little, too late and whether, this time, voluntary codes will be enough. The toymaker succeeded by completely overhauling its culture and financial services cannot afford to tinker around the edges.

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