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Monday, 6 February 2012

Untimely ripped

A friend had a hysterectomy last week, for sound medical reasons.  As I pointed out to her, because she missed the news while in hospital, she wasn't the only one to have something removed last week, although hers was by necessity, whereas Mr Goodwin's humiliation was totally unnecessary. According to some reports the Queen voiced misgivings before signing the order annulling Mr Goodwin's knighthood, not least because he was a trustee of her Silver Jubilee Trust, and had previously been active in The Prince's Trust, a well trodden route to curry favour with the biggest family in Berkshire.

Don't misunderstand me. I am no fan of Goodwin, who all accounts appears to be a self-seeking careerist who built up a lousy company (RBS) with a dreadful culture in his own image, which by all accounts had a management structure full of self seeking careerists with no great ability and even less consideration for their colleagues, customers or the rest of society. His Glaswegian chippiness meant that he though his team was excluded from the Premiership because he was based north of the border, but the reality was that, like the Old Firm,  his team didn't have the talent to get through the first round of the Europa League.

But whilst I might not think much of him as a banker, I have to say that I think the way he has been treated over hi knighthood is a bit shabby.  We might like to think that knighthoods are handed out to worthy people of standing in public life, and while that may be true of many recipients, there are just as many time serving civil servants, loyal (boring) backbench MPs, party donors and game show hosts who wangle a gong and a trip to the Palace, so what did Mr Goodwin do to deserve his medal and then deserve to lose it.

The first answer was that he was the managing director of one of the largest banks in the country, although that isn't a wholly satisfactory justification.  Sir James Crosby, the equally inept MD of HBOS may have got one, but John Varley, the quietly spoken MD of Barclays managed to avoid getting one, although if 90% of your profits come from either avoiding tax on your banks profits or assisting others to do the same, the outcome is never going to be hard to guess. But Goodwin and Crosby has the advantage of running nominally Scottish banks at a time when the economy was supposedly run by Scotsmen, so Goodwins gong was a racing certainty.

Indeed Goodwin's case was improved when RBS made a hostile bid for NatWest 1999, turning RBS from a regional also ran into one of the biggest balance sheets in the known world.  Of course making a hostile bid isn't always very wise, particularly when bidding for a bank.  Banks aren't that much differentiated so the profit margins tend to be very slight compared to the asset or capital base, and in a hostile bid, there is a good chance that you might pick a wrong'un.  Fortunately for Goodwin, NatWest was in a fairly sound condition, so tha by the time the marauding Scots had shoved their sgian-dubhs into the careers of the NatWest middle management, there was enough free cash to make the takeover a success and allow Mr Goodwin to book his trip to the palace.

Part of that success would have been attributable to the conservative nature of the previous NatWest management, and part would have been down to the proper supervision of NatWest.

Now the FSA may have changed its name in 1997, but it didn't take on its current regulatory powers until 2001, whereas the NatWest takeover took place while banks were still supervised by the Bank of England.  One of the options not really open to the BoE was to say to RBS "hang on a minute, before you blow a wad of cash on NatWest, do you really know what you are doing?".  Why?  Because the BoE supervised NatWest, and as it turned out, seemed to have done a good job.

Now fast forward a few years and the acquisitive Goodwin tries to pull the same stunt on ABN, albeit that this time Goodwin makes a joint bid with other banks, aiming to split it up.  As we all know by now, it all went horribly wrong, but we can still ask some questions about who was responsible.  Sure enough Sir Fred deserves his share of the blame, but he wasn't able to commit RBS without the approval of his board.  Where were they? And it should also require some sort of nod from the new regulator, the FSA.  Where was John Tiner?  And where was the question about "Do you really know what you are doing?" and the follow up "And who do you think is going to pick up the tab when your blind gamble goes belly up?", because this time the regulator didn't have a clue about what might be lurking under the ABN balance sheet - as it turned out a whole lot of nasties.

So Goodwin has some sympathy from me, not least because he wasn't the only one to blame, but mostly because he has obviously been used and abused by the politicians and public sector staff who are trying hard to divert attention away from their own shortcomings.

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