Kirk's Book Reviews
Kirk's Book Reviews
|Posted on May 15, 2016 at 3:30 AM|
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Other than Lehman Brothers, RBS is the most notorious example of hubris leading up to the 2008/09 banking meltdown. Its market capitalisation stood at £76 billion in May 2007 – more than every other listed Scottish firm put together – and the bank employed up to 200,000 people worldwide. By October 2008 it was worth only £16 billion and on the verge of collapse, relying on taxpayer support to keep it solvent.
CEO Fred Goodwin emerged from this mess as ‘the unacceptable face of capitalism’ and is the nearest thing this generation has to a James Bond-esque villain. Only last week the Scottish Crown Office announced ‘Fred the Shred’ and his fellow cronies will not face prosecution for misleading investors over a £12 billion rights issue in 2008, despite a five-year review and trawling through 160,000 documents. It seems RBS and its disgraced former-Emperor cannot stay out of the news for all the wrong reasons.
Ian Fraser’s epic inside story relies on up to 120 current and former employees of RBS, most of whom prefer to remain anonymous. But the biggest scoop is the author’s access to Sir George Matthewson (former CEO and Chairman who nominated Goodwin as his successor) and Iain Robertson (Non-Executive Chairman of the Corporate Banking & Financial Markets Division). This leaves Fraser with no shortage of rich accounts from the protagonists present during the crisis and, indeed, those that helped ferment it.
Fred Goodwin’s fall from grace should already be familiar to anyone with a passing interest in current affairs and an awareness of tabloid headlines over the last eight years. Fraser doesn’t dwell on the excesses, but reminds us that Fred spent a distasteful £18 million on Corporate Jets; employed his sporting heroes Jackie Stewart and Jack Nicklaus as £3 million-a-year Global Ambassadors; had fresh fruit flown in daily from Paris; obsessed over the colour of the bank’s carpets; and lavished $500 million on the RBS Connecticut HQ at the height of his powers. The author is not the first to suggest the man at the helm from 2000 to 2008 was an unapproachable megalomaniac, but at the heart of this book is a determination to uncover those conditions that allowed profligacy and recklessness to permeate a once-trusted and respected institution.
A whole chapter dedicated to RBS’s famous takeover battle with Bank of Scotland for Nat West in 1999/2000 is a welcome context to subsequent events, and Fraser is keen to remind us how Goodwin’s role in this would later become a Harvard Business School case study in successful integration. It also earned Goodwin the Forbes Global Businessman of the Year for 2002 and the admiration of New Labour and the Prince of Wales. So the Shred wasn’t born with a silver spoon and didn’t acquire an army of sycophants without demonstrating his Midas Touch during his early days. But it convinced him more acquisitions would keep the share-price rising, ending with the fateful decision to buy ABN Amro in 2007.
In total RBS made 27 acquisitions on his watch, most of them a vain attempt to take on Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan and Morgan Stanley in their own backyard. By 2006 the bank’s American subsidiary, RBS Greenwich Capital, had become the second biggest issuer of sub-prime securities worth $99.3 billion (behind only Lehman Brothers). Fraser unearths quotes from Goodwin on 1st March and 5th June 2007 stating RBS did not get involved in sub-prime lending, even though he must have known by November that year just how much exposure the bank had to a weakening US housing market. Was this disingenuousness, denial or deception?
One of the obvious lessons from the crisis is that the regulatory authorities should have done more to prevent a bank like RBS getting out control. The bank’s adherence to the International Financial Reporting Standards (FRS) method of accounting helped it hide up to £32 billion of shaky assets, allowing poor-performing loans to go unreported. Likewise, the Clinton administration’s passage of the Commodity Futures Modernization Act – which banned the Securities and Exchange Commission from regulating derivatives – created the conditions for casino banking to flourish. The arch-capitalist Democratic President also loosened the Glass-Steagall Act of 1933 that had been in place to separate Retail and Investment banking. Even the most trusted central banker of modern times, Alan Greenspan, must rue his decision to lower interest rates from 6.5 percent to 1 percent in the immediate aftermath of 9/11.
But RBS, despite its global pretensions, remained a Scottish bank to the core and reaped the benefits of Margaret Thatcher’s ‘Big Bang’ in 1986. This remains one of the most ambitious bonfires of regulation in the history of modern capitalism and led to an orgy of mergers and acquisitions following the dismantling of exchange controls. Goodwin and RBS were one of many beneficiaries of the ‘light touch’ regulation continued by Blair and Brown in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Once again Fraser produces an impressive array of quotes from New Labour’s leaders praising the minimum supervisory role of the FSA. The bonanza of Corporation Tax produced by financial taxes represented 13.4 percent of the entire take in 2007 (£67.8 billion) – no wonder Gordon Brown claimed his Cabinet had abolished the boom and bust cycle.
In essence the tale of RBS is a depressing story of arrogance and myopia where institutional investors did nothing to hold the bank to account. As a listed company, RBS came to be dominated by a smaller pool of shareholders with ever larger stakes. The pressure to increase Returns on Equity, pay higher dividends and boost the share-price granted power to short-term over long-term interests. Goodwin feared his bank would be ‘in play’ as a takeover target if it did not go along with an aggressive expansion. As Fraser points out, an astonishing 94.5 percent of shareholders voted for the disastrous €71.1 billion acquisition of ABN Amro in August 2007 as part of a consortium with Santander and Fortis. Surely this now ranks as one of the most insane decisions taken by a listed company in the last four hundred years.
Shredded: Inside RBS has won prestigious accolades from Bloomberg, the Huffington Post and The Week, but Goodman Sachs must be relieved they no longer sponsor the FT Business Book of the Year, for which this made the longlist. Their scandalous handling of the RBS £12 billion rights issue in October 2008 leaves them with little integrity. Indeed, Fraser reveals how Goldman passed on shares it was under-writing to a group of hedge funds intent on short-selling RBS. Critics believe this outrageous disloyalty might even have contributed to the share price dropping below 200p. The mere chance it could have put the whole rights issue in jeopardy shows a breath-taking betrayal of trust from the world’s most famous investment bank and is one of many revelations Fraser uncovers in his monumental study. Former RBS Economist, Alex Salmond, is also quoted in a sycophantic letter to Goodwin praising the globe-trotting success of the bank and its importance to Scotland’s economic identity.
At 608 pages, Fraser has left us with a gripping account of the bank that nearly blew up the British economy. And eight years later RBS is still a noose around the taxpayer’s neck. A Moneywise survey in 2015 named it the least trusted bank in the UK due to its appalling customer service and complaint-handling. Numerous lawsuits remain outstanding from manipulation of LIBOR and rigging the foreign exchange markets to the scandalous behaviour of its Global Restructuring Group, where thousands of small businesses allege the bank pushed them into bankruptcy to buy up their assets on the cheap for future profit.
The sad truth is Britain would be better off without RBS, but its sheer size makes it too important to fail. Ian Fraser is in no mood to temper the moral outrage, but perhaps glosses over some of the bank’s early successes during the Millennium. In that regard Shredded: Inside RBS is the right book at the right time for our epoch and is guaranteed a long print run. Aside from the poor taste of the cover artwork and populist title, this is a serious piece of work aimed at both the aggrieved taxpayer and FT reader.