Business

Will patient bankers prevail?

BBC business editor Robert Peston on banking partition and pay

Andy Haldane of the Bank of England gave a compelling talk last week about the perennial, epic battle between patience and impatience in the psyche of investors, business leaders and the rest - and what that means for how we should regulate or tax markets and companies.

It included some depressing data on the pernicious triumph of short-termism (or impatience).

According to research by the Bank of England, over the long term (in this case, more than 100 years), the investor who buys and sells the market when share prices lose touch with the fundamental value of companies, well he or she loses money.

But there are decent profits to be had through momentum investing, or being a sheep, by buying when others buy and selling when others sell, in an unthinking mechanistic way.

Of course, if you buy the market and never sell, then that's probably the best investment strategy. But our nature makes it almost impossible for many of us to sit on our hands forever.

Our instinctual preference is to be doing something - especially when we're bombarded with information on the performance of individual investments and specific companies, and also when there's excess liquidity in markets, making it seemingly cheap and easy to buy and sell.

Which is why Haldane concludes that it's quite possible to have too much of a good thing, in the form of information and easy ability to trade.

So whether we're managing a portfolio of investments or on the board of a listed company, impatience and irrationality are the victors - as perhaps evinced in the trend over the past century by which dividend payments have become increasingly disconnected from the financial performance of companies.

These days, dividend payments increase, even when profits fall, which is not what happened in the 19th century. The reason? Well it must be that investors are increasingly unable to wait for the jam.

Now if you want to see management impatience at full throttle, perhaps the place to look is at the lobbying by bank executives against the Banking Commission, which has been set up by the government.

The commission - a quintet of bankers, economists and regulators, all of them pretty distinguished and impressively heterogeneous in opinion - has a year to make recommendations on how to improve the stability and security of the banking system, and how to stimulate competition between banks.

But even before the commission has published the scope of its enquiry, bankers - such as Stuart Gulliver of HSBC - have been muttering that they and their institutions may have to relocate elsewhere if the commission comes up with recommendations they don't like (such as that they must formally separate their investment banking operations from retail banking).

This is to assume that Australia (for example) - which, as I understand it, is the most likely destination for HSBC were it to choose to emigrate - would be flattered to become the new home for a bank whose structure would have been ruled by the UK government (in Mr Gulliver's personal nightmare) to be anti-social and too risky.

There is something slightly odd about the idea that banks perceived to be malign for the UK economy would be seen as wholly benign in other territories.

It would be better, surely, for Mr Gulliver and his peers at the other big banks to show a bit of patience (that virtue again), and have a debate with the commission, rather than threatening slightly implausible retribution before the verdict is even a twinkle in the commission's eye.

There has also been another recent manifestation of bankers' impatience: they hoped that the new coalition government would drop the commitment of the previous government to force the publication by banks of statistics showing how many of their respective executives earn between £1m and £2.5m, how many earn between £2.5m and £5m, and how many earn more than that (in bands of £5m).

These pay disclosures - in banks' annual reports next year - were an important recommendation of Sir David Walker's "Review of Corporate Governance in UK Banks".

And they are giving the heeby-jeebies to top bankers, because they fear that more than a few of you will be a bit bemused that bankers can pocket such magnificent sums when job insecurity and flat pay is the order of the day elsewhere.

So bankers rather hoped that the chancellor would kill the new disclosure requirements: one of the weekend newspapers even reported that George Osborne was likely to do that.

The Treasury, however, tells me this is not so. Mr Osborne is committed to implementing Sir David Walker's proposals, it says.

Which poses something of a dilemma for bankers.

Either they must demonstrate to the rest of us that paying a few million squids each to their star performers is a sensible long-term way of generating incremental wealth for their institutions and for the economy; or they should concede that these pay deals are another manifestation of animal short-term appetites and irrational impatience, which should (in that case) be reformed and restrained.

You can keep up with the latest from business editor Robert Peston by visiting his blog on the BBC News website.

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