Bill McDonough once preached to Wall Street from the pulpit of Trinity Church, taking his text from St Matthew and reminding his astonished hearers of their duty to their neighbours. Lord George (Eddie, still, in the City) prefers to take his text from J. Fred Coots and Henry Gillespie, authors of the 1930s classic ‘Santa Claus is Coming to Town’. To an astonished banquet of bankers in Guildhall on Monday, he warbled his message: ‘You better be good, for goodness sake.’ A warning came with it: ‘He knows if you’ve been bad or good.’ This was Santa, an example to central bankers everywhere. When Eddie was governing the Bank of England and his friend Bill ran the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, they knew very well who had been bad or good on their patches. Now, though, Lord George is Master of the Guild of International Bankers, which is the City’s newest livery company, his friend was this week’s guest of honour, and they both of them think that something new is needed. By this, of course, they mean something old: decency, fairness, integrity and the trust that should go with them. None of these could be taken for granted, of late, in financial markets on either side of the Atlantic, and some banks and bankers — in conjunction with their clients — have felt able to economise on them or do without them. The Guild, at its master’s prompting, has now tried to sum them up in five principles of good behaviour, which its members must uphold. In this way, without preaching, they might remind others in the City of their duty to their neighbours.
No ticks, no boxes
This will come as a surprise and a challenge to the growth industry which calls itself corporate social responsibility. Read all about it in the self-satisfied supplements that distend every major company’s report and accounts. These will explain how diverse its workforce is, and how carefully it throws its computers away, and how it complies with this or that protocol idly promulgated at some distant boondoggle, and in general how nice it is to trees. Shell was so busy ticking all these boxes that it forgot to add up its reserves of oil. They are brought into service as proxies for good behaviour in business, but do not equate to it. Decency and fairness and integrity may not easily fit into boxes, but we should all be able to recognise them when we see them. Eddie George wants to remind us of them. In that sense, what he proposes is self-regulation, based on its only sure footing, which is self-respect.
Moving on, moving in
This is a bit late in the day, you might think, for the City to generate a bankers’ company. It has drapers and girdlers and dozens of other companies, but not much draping or girdling has gone on there since the old City of merchants went up in smoke in the Blitz. In earlier times the goldsmiths had doubled as bankers, but when Charles II invited them to leave their stock in trade with the Exchequer and refused to give it back, they were ruined, and financial technology had to move on. Three centuries later, the modern City’s dominant business was not represented until Sir Paul Newall, 666th in the line of Lord Mayors, resolved to fill the gap and became the Guild’s founding master. Next, it will need a hall — and could choose its own address in Lombard Street, when after eight centuries the last of the bankers moves out. I hope that by then it will have made its mark and set its example.
Here we go again. At this time of year the big companies add up their figures and come out with big numbers, which result in instant outrage and cries for instant taxation. Poor old Shell — oh, all right, rich old Shell — got it first, even though if Shell cannot find or buy some more oil it will not have a business. BP was next in line, and now Barclays will lead the parade of banks. This year, Abbey National will not be joining them. Having managed to lose its boots, it has remustered under Spanish colours. The moral is, as always, that greedy banks are better for us than needy banks, and that they can make the transition quite easily — like Abbey, or half of the banks in Japan. Still, if we wanted to make our banks needier, we could always invite them to leave their stock in trade with the Exchequer. There is more than one precedent.
Togo to go
A moment of silence for Gnassinbge Eyadema, the ruler of Togo, who has gone to his fathers and has been succeeded by his son. He murdered his country’s first president, brought the army out against the second, and reigned for 38 years, disposing of any dissentients. As Marvell said of Cromwell:
The same arts that did gain